"Access to Regular Supply Chain Needed for Farmers to Produce Organic Food Outside Their Village": Social Entrepreneur & Philanthropist Aditi Deshmukh

Aditi Deshmukh
Aditi Deshmukh

The world today is widely focused on organic farming and sustainable living as chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture have become a major source of contamination in rich soil and freshwater resources. The genuine motivation to the globe, however, comes from a few people here who have made it their life's work to change the face of agriculture for the betterment of all humanity.

One such personality is Aditi Amit Deshmukh, a social entrepreneur and a committed advocate of quality academia, organic farming, and Ayurveda.

The latter is at the forefront of rural transformation, education, healthcare, skill development, employment, and women empowerment through her advisory role on the boards of Manjara Charitable Trust (MCT), Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation (VDF), and Metropolis Foundation (TSTA).

Deshmukh began her professional journey as a model and actor, and soon changed paths to pursue her true calling in social upliftment and entrepreneurship.

In 2016, she founded 21 Organic, a farm-to-table produce venture, inspired by a lack of access to clean and chemical-free food. She also provides livelihood to local farmers through homegrown and sustainable agro venture.

Further, in her capacity as the executive trustee of Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation, Deshmukh has also adopted 26 villages in Latur, Maharashtra for the overall rural development of this region.

Krishi Jagran caught up with the new-age entrepreneur and philanthropist to learn more about her plans for rural change, her goals for her farm-to-table business, and other topics. Read on:

Ques - You associated with the Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation in 2008 and have been passionately working for rural development since then. How challenging was it to mentor and skill the people towards sustainable farming adopted across the region?

Aditi Deshmukh - Organic farming is a step-by-step process and during the first few years, we worked with consultants to develop our own protocol.

I learned the protocols to use during the Rabi and Kharif seasons and slowly reached out to other farmers through a process of trial and error. Initially, farmers were reluctant to grow organic products as a business due to the low yields of organic produce and the high incidence of pests. During this period, 21 Organic emerged with stable market connections and supply chains, as well as a high price point for organic products in order to compensate for declining production yields. This is why organic foods are available at high prices in the market.

Interestingly all farmers are into organic farming in a small patch of land behind their houses for their own personal consumption. So, it’s not like they didn’t know about organic farming techniques. It was only about transitioning from conventional farming that relies heavily on fertilizers and pesticides to what their grandparents did and following optimum protocols to maximize yield.

So, it was just about taking this practice and expanding it to cover all of the rest of the crops that they use for market enterprise as well. We did the same thing on a large commercial scale.

Ques - In your capacity as the executive trustee of the Foundation, tell us about your work in the rural region to encourage education, skill development, women employment, and awareness of plastic waste.

Aditi Deshmukh - Vilasrao Deshmukh Foundation is a family foundation that was started by Mr. Amit Deshmukh to strengthen the legacy of his father’s work to contribute to society and also to build on it, due to his deep admiration for his father and his devotion to the cause of societal upliftment in Maharashtra and India.

Our mission is to achieve all-around urban and rural development through social initiatives and educational opportunities. We focus particularly on Health, Education, and Economic Empowerment.

We realized that the needy women would need to be given skill training to help them become financially independent. Under VDF, we offer bedside assistance training which is a 3-month certified course and has helped several women to land jobs and earn a living in hospices and hospitals. To formalize our skilling initiatives, we affiliated with the regulatory government bodies for permissions like the MSDC (State skilling body) and NSDC (National skilling body) (check), which informed us that there is a shortage of trained bedside assistance/nursing staff. Our goal is to provide free sewing and tailoring training to needy women, focusing on the latest fashion trends, art, and designs to remain market-savvy.

To display and retail the clothes and carpets made by our ladies, we have connected with various local Self-Help Groups and participated in their exhibitions. Our latest venture is stitching cloth carry bags, which aligns with our goal to make Latur plastic free. Under this initiative, we have tied up with vendors to provide the cloth and then connected with retail outfits to supply the bags and thus close the supply chain.

Many big chains like D mart, Reliance, and Shoppers Stop have entered districts of Maharashtra and are looking for skilled staff who will help with retail and marketing. This is a 3-month certified program that helps in personality development as well as gaining confidence to speak English. We took up this project with the objective that youth in these regions should be empowered to find employment at their home location itself so that they don`t fall prey to the urban migration system and seek out jobs in cities like Mumbai or Pune.

The next step was to create awareness of the issue, and our team would go from door to door to educate people about the problems of plastic waste. At a gram panchayat level, we sent out a notice to all vendors that plastic is to be banned and that using plastic bags will incur a fine. We covered all the wells with nets so people wouldn't dump plastic bottles in them.

In every gully, we installed 3 bins – for wet waste, dry waste, and plastic waste and we were constantly on the ground educating people on what waste to put in which bin and how to use the bins correctly. When all the plastic was being collected in one bin, we started a `reuse plastic` project at a village level. The new panchayat is working on this.

There are hundreds of students from the Marathwada region who have graduated from our ICSE school and are on their way to pursue a Masters degree in Medicine or Architecture in the UK, which would never have been possible without the opportunities our Gold Crest school at Latur provided, be it holistic education, exposure to various skills, encouraging them to speak in English, and all-round personality development. In our school, we broke away from this approach and brought in holistic education which has brought a tremendously positive impact and seen some amazing results in society.

Ques - What has been the inspiration behind the initiative of transitioning farmers back to natural farming practices and how far have you succeeded in it. Further, tell us about your efforts in establishing a supply chain for organic produce to directly benefit the farmers.

Aditi Deshmukh - There were fish and ducks and orchards and all kinds of flora and fauna and I`ve grown up with a lot of exposure to farm life like plucking fruit off trees, harvesting grapes, and having access to really clean and fresh food.

So, when I had my children, I felt really sad about missing the opportunity to provide them the same fresh, clean, and safe food that I was given throughout. We had a piece of farmland available to us in Latur - where my husband Amit`s work takes us very often, and it was almost a natural progression for me to take up farming there as something I wanted to do for my children and my family.

It is important for people to consume organic food as food that is grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides are toxic because it has ingested all chemicals and fertilizers that have been applied to it during the cultivation process hence when we are consuming these fruits, vegetables, and crops we are ingesting the same poison in very small quantity.

Fresh fruits and vegetables that are organically grown give us more energy and good immunity. From a climate consciousness perspective alone, to be applying that much to toxins on our soil is ultimately going to find its way to our crops and water. So ultimately you would not be able to farm on the land as it becomes like a rock.

For access to organically grown food, we need access to a regular supply chain with proper infrastructure, it is impossible for farmers to produce outside their villages and towns, and therefore regular markets and good prices for their produce are also very difficult.

Ensuring a supply chain remains challenging even today mainly for fresh fruit and vegetables. Our aim was to harvest fresh and deliver it to the door of the consumer within 24 hours of the harvest which we made possible using the road network between Latur and Mumbai.

Ques - As a social entrepreneur, how have you helped the 26 villages in Latur that you adopted, and what are your plans ahead for the same?

Aditi Deshmukh - We have adopted 26 villages so far. When we adopt a village, we study what the villages need, and what problems the village is facing and then try to put together solutions for those problems. While we don’t look after every aspect of rural functioning, we cover important aspects like healthcare, skilling for rural employment, health, senior citizen welfare programs, and sanitation issues like providing clean drinking water. The thing to note is that there is a tremendous amount of documentation that is maintained by our team for all the schemes we undertake for the villages we adopt. Our focus is on doing a thorough and well-documented job of whatever we undertake, not taking up schemes just for advertising purposes.

Our team also creates awareness of all the government schemes available to villagers so that people can link up to the schemes and avail of the benefits that are available to them. A lot of people cannot access these schemes due to various challenges, logistical and otherwise. We ensure the program is delivered to the village.

Ques - How were you able to alleviate the water problem and achieve organic farming practices in drought-prone areas of Latur?

Aditi Deshmukh - No one can alleviate any water problem completely, the only thing we all can do is act consciously. We use drip irrigation which is a more sustainable form of irrigation that requires much less water than other regular flood irrigation. We tried to work with seasonal and regional crops which automatically require a lot less water, for example in trying to grow broccoli off-season or iceberg lettuce which does not belong to the region then these crop needs much more support in terms of water, fertilizers, pesticides, etc therefore sticking with seasonal regional crops and by using drip irrigation for crops are the two ways in which we manage the water situation better. The idea is to farm consciously, and use water consciously as organic farming is itself very sustainable which automatically saves water as inorganic farming requires 4 times more water to grow the same crop.

Ques - How is 21 Organic, a farm-to-table venture, promoting sustainable agriculture and creating employment opportunities for rural youth and women?

Aditi Deshmukh - The rise of organic farming as a viable alternative to conventional farming not only solves quality and environmental issues but also guarantees employment. It benefits both developed and developing countries like India. It reduces the cost of agricultural production and also improves soil health. Organic agriculture as a system of crop production is designed to nourish the soil rather than the plants. It can withstand turbulence under rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Our team also creates awareness of all the government schemes available to villagers so that people can link up to the schemes and avail of the benefits that are available to them. A lot of people cannot access these schemes due to various challenges, logistical and otherwise. We ensure the program is delivered to the village.

We have options for the youth and women at 21 Organic for part-time and full-time jobs, for example, the youth participate in the transportation and management of our fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, women who work from home contribute to sorting and grading the herbs and its packaging. We have employed 300 plus women and 200 plus youth in the Marathwada region.

Ques - What are the challenges you faced in adhering to organic farming practices and how 21Organic has been able to encourage farmers to embrace the new organic way of farming?

Aditi Deshmukh - Helping farmers to transition into organic farming and conscious living has been challenging as we had to first work on their mentality. In the process of quick solutions and more produce farmers have been practising the conventional way of farming which became our biggest challenge. To unlearn and relearn a new way of farming required a lot of understanding and hard work. We started with creating awareness of organic farming and its benefits for the environment and health. Our venture worked on the marketability of organic products compared to conventional products. Fair pricing for quality products was taken care of as failure to get the highest price for your product in the early stages leads to demotivation among the farmers. We put extensive research on the quality of soil and methods to bring back its nutrition as we understand if the soil lacks essential nutrients, it will be

less productive. A biomass-rich soil is essential to improve the uptake of nutrients by plants.

21 Organic gave them training, developed organic farming skills in them, created awareness, and worked towards giving them a platform with fair pricing. It generated employment and conscious living amongst them in all ways.

Ques - Having achieved success in implementing sustainable farm practices in rural Marathwada, do you have a roadmap towards extending it in other regions?

Aditi Deshmukh - At the moment we are only concentrating on the Marathwada region taluka which has 2500 acres of certified organic land. This taluka is the largest in the country. We want to consolidate our efforts, strengthen our farming practices, and introduce crops like ashwagandha into our crop mixes. There, farmers without access to irrigation all year round can benefit from crops like ashwagandha that require little water support. We have a very large footprint of certified organic farmland. At the moment there are no expansion plans, but once we have a very strong base, we could have an even stronger model of cultivation and crop rotation. In the coming years, we are ready to expand outside the Marathwada area.

Ques - According to you, what are the hurdles in organic farming in India, and what initiatives have been taken by your organization to promote organic farming out of the Marathwada region?

Aditi Deshmukh - In my experience, the hurdles to organic farming in India are forgetting 30-40 years of conventional farming, re-learning and re-training yourself, reclaiming old wisdom, and working hard to embrace it. It's about returning to the roots of what agriculture should be. This requires a lot of effort, as the easy way is chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In organic farming practices that prevent the infestation of all kinds of pests, the production of organic fertilizers and natural pesticides is three to four times more labour intensive than that of chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The main challenge was to change farmers' attitudes. Educate on the negative effects of chemical farming and the unsustainable aspects of chemical farming, which means the soil will eventually die.

Ques - What lessons can we take from some of the foreign countries and companies to give a push to organic farming in India?

Aditi Deshmukh - In 2015, I attended Agritech, an agriculture and technology trade fair in Israel, and was truly amazed at the progress they made. It is targeted. Farmers in Israel are by far the wealthiest community because their income is so high. This is because it is supported at all levels by government policies and regulations. The lessons we can learn from them are better planning of products, support of relevant authorities, regional planning across the country, for example, how much tomatoes or onions and wheat to be grown to get a good price so that we have enough to support our economy to export but marginal that there is a glut leading to a price fall.

We can also learn from the fact that the Indian sugar industry is highly regulated. As there is always a fair price called Hami Bao, sugarcane farmers are very sure that there is a market for sugarcane as Hami Bao is the minimum guarantee and they can live sustainably accordingly. For other crops, I think we need to maintain farming practices and create better regulations for agricultural products. This gives farmers a minimum guarantee and the necessary information about how much and what they need to grow, avoiding surpluses or dearth.

Ques - What is the road ahead for 21 Organic?

Aditi Deshmukh - We started with fresh fruits and vegetables and now we are moving towards medicinal herbs beginning with Ashwagandha. We began with a 10-acre trail and now have moved to 150 acres last year and now we are going for 600 acres for cultivation in the Latur region.

The next step would be to add more ayurvedic herbs to this crop rotation process. Ashwagandha covers cultivation from November to April. We are exploring the best avenues to cover the monsoon that is from June to October so the farmers have two crops, one for the Rabi and another for the Kharif crop season.

Our aim through this is to slowly improve the quality of the soil because ayurvedic herbs tend to require less water and also less pest control and management, therefore making it easier to embrace for the farmers who are practicing organic farming. Embracing this practice, getting a minimum guaranteed price, having a secure livelihood, and improving the quality of soil will lead to a sustainable life for the coming generation.

Ques - Being an ardent believer in the philosophy of Ayurveda and traditional sciences, you are on the cusp of launching an Ayurvedic venture. Tell us more about it.

I am a fervent believer in Ayurveda and its process of self-discovery, and self-actualization, which accelerates the evolution of mind and body. I have been passionately working with the aim of raising awareness of the power of Ayurveda with the current generation and promoting its healing principles. We grow certified ashwagandha which is one of the most powerful ancient Indian herbs with multiple benefits. In the present market, I feel there is a void for an Ayurvedic brand that addresses the needs of today. This is what I hope to offer to Indian consumers as well as global consumers. In the present market, I feel there is a void for an Ayurvedic brand that addresses the needs of today. This is what I hope to offer to Indian consumers as well as global consumers.

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