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Bengaluru Venture Assists 1 lakh farmers to Sell Pesticide-Free Produce,  Earn 20% More

In association with farmer producer organisations (FPOs), civil society and NGOs, Safe Harvest works with 100,000 small and marginal farmers who don’t use chemical pesticides to grow organic produce.

Ayushi Raina
Female Farmer working and smiling
Female Farmer working and smiling

Pesticide-free farming is not a unique or innovative concept in India. It has been done for many years by marginal (cultivating agricultural land up to 1 hectare) and small farmers (with less than two hectares of land).

Despite their better quality, their food is frequently mixed up with conventional produce because India does not yet have a distinct category for pesticide-free produce.

Enter Safe Harvest Pvt Ltd, a 2009 venture that works with 100,000 small and marginal farmers from some of India's most remote areas in collaboration with farmer producer organisations (FPOs), civil society, and NGOs. It aids in the implementation of agriculture's Non-Pesticidal Management (NPM) system and connects it to consumer markets.

“For example, Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS), a grassroots organisation located in the predominantly tribal area of Dewas in Madhya Pradesh that works with over 4,000 tribal women farmers, is one of our long-standing partners. Another of our partners is the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, which works with smallholder farmers in remote areas of Gujarat (Netrang and Dangs),” says Rangu Rao, CEO of Safe Harvest.

Safe Harvest claims to offer their goods "the recognition it deserves" while also helping farmers connect to consumer markets. According to the venture, farmers that use NPM and work with Safe Harvest earn nearly 20% more than farmers who cultivate conventionally. But exactly how?

Besides from aiding them in implementing this healthier NPM practise, the venture also assures produce collection at the farmgate and collaborates with banks and NBFCs (Non- Banking Financial Companies) to assist them in their procurement processes.

Furthermore, Safe Harvest claims to conduct rigorous testing on over 120 pesticides to ensure that consumers obtain pesticide-free products. “We use minimum processing, which helps maintain all of the nutritional ingredients (pulses, brown rice, unpolished millets, khandsari sugar, whole wheat flour, and so on) with no additional additives and no blending” he says.

Pesticide-Free Produce

“For years, the majority of the farmer organisations we deal with, such as FPOs and NGOs, have been using traditional methods without the use of synthetic pesticides, etc. This knowledge has been passed down over decades, if not centuries, of experience. So, NPM as a method, in essence builds on and encourages these traditional practises. However, in 2005, eight civil society organisations banded together to formalise and structure the interventions. When the operations on the ground got more established in 2009, these organisations saw a need to sell this sustainably farmed product so that smallholders could earn a premium, giving birth to Safe Harvest,” adds Rao.

The use of bio-repellents/pesticides, which are often more efficient than chemical pesticides, is a crucial aspect of NPM. They aid in pest control and prevention, whereas chemical alternatives focus just on control. As a result, whereas natural pesticides repel pests, chemical ones kill all pests, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem.

Ingredients in these bio-pesticides include neem, datura, and custard apple leaves, among others. Farmers use pheromone traps and bird perches in addition to bio-pesticides to repel pests.

“During the crop season, pest management is divided into two phases. The first phase is installing monitoring and preventive methods such as pheromone traps to determine pest intensity. “This phase also entails putting bird perches (on which birds may rest, watch for, and attack dangerous insects), weeding at critical junctures in the crop cycle, and segregating and removing disease-ridden plants,” he says.

The second phase of pest control occurs when farmers detect the start of pest attack or realise that yields may fall short of expectations. During this phase, people are urged to spray locally manufactured bio-pesticides. They use nutrients/organic matter and organically produced growth promoters to boost yields.

Benefits of adopting NPM are plenty

Basumati Daryav, a 45-year-old farmer from Laxminagar village in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, has been using NPM on her 1.23-acre farm for four years. “I grow Tuar” (Red Gram). Earlier, I used Dawa (synthetic insecticides) and was terrified of them. I used to spend Rs.200-300 for a litre of pesticides, however the efficacy of these pesticides began to deteriorate with time. This put me in debt. Members of Samaj Pragati Sahayog came to my farm and advised me to start with NPM on a small portion of my land, which I did. “I found that there was no substantial reduction in yield when compared to previous years,” she explains.

Farmers can also save money on water and electricity. The majority of the commodities procured by Safe Harvest are cultivated in drylands and rainfed areas with limited irrigation facilities.

However, in the instance of paddy, the organisation with whom Safe Harvest partners also focuses on water management, which is an essential component of their NPM programme.

Earlier, farmers would flood their fields and have around 4-6 inches of standing water, but today they only have 1-2 inches of water, which greatly reduces the amount of water required to produce the crop and, as a result, improves their savings on electricity used for irrigation. Most organisations with whom Safe Harvest partners focus on related theme areas such as watershed development in combination with NPM agriculture promotion. As a result, water usage optimization and, by extension, electricity use optimization goes hand in hand with NPM agriculture,” adds Rao.

Promoting Their Product

“While the details of water, electricity, and money vary from place to place, on average, farmers who follow NPM and market their products through Safe Harvest have seen roughly a 20% improvement in their net savings,” argues Save Harvest CEO Ranga Rao.

Rao says that Safe Harvest directly procures food at the farm gate, avoiding transportation costs for farmers (who would otherwise have to take their goods to the nearest APMC Mandi), resulting in a considerable decrease in farmers' expenditures.

“The farmers' commission costs at the Mandi are also removed as a result of this action. Also, we offer a 2-3% premium on the prevailing Mandi pricing for the farmers' products at the farmgate. In some cases, we also offer packaging bags, which farmers would otherwise have to pay for. They can save more money because of lower input prices as a result of the absence of synthetic pesticides. Safe Harvest's paddy cultivating farmers in Raichur, Karnataka, for example, may save between Rs.2500 and 5000 per acre by practising,” adds Rao. 

Farmers Producer Organizations (FPO) benefit from their association with Safe Harvest as well, as they are able to obtain low-interest loans from Non-Banking Financial Corporations, which they then invest in order to improve their value-addition capacities, thereby increasing the prices they receive for their produce. “For example, RRPPCL (Ram Rahim Pragati Producer Business Limited, a producer company promoted by SPS) now supplies milled and packaged Wheat Flour to Safe Harvest, when previously they only supplied whole wheat,” he says.

Not Organic

Is it financially feasible for all farmers in India, especially small and marginal farmers, to go entirely organic? Is Safe Harvest's ultimate goal to go organic?

Rao does not respond positively. “The process of organic certification is expensive, cumbersome, and out of reach for the vast majority of small and marginal farmers,” he says. Also, there is a three-year conversion period during which there is a substantial drop in yields that most smallholders cannot afford, making these farmers unviable. During this time, the product is also not recognised as organic, leaving no way to distinguish it from "conventional" fruit.

Rao concludes, "Safe Harvest guarantees that its partner organisations practise pesticide-free agriculture." However, there may be unintentional contamination from wind-drift and water from nearby farms that practise conventional agriculture. The rigorous testing at various levels of the supply chain eliminates this danger and guarantees that Safe Harvest products are pesticide-free and completely safe to consume.”

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