Coronavirus outbreak: Trend-setting organic farms are badly hit

Updated: 27 March, 2020 07:52 IST | Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

Indie farms, which were the back-bone of the city's farm-to-fork and clean-eating resurgence, struggle for survival

With the lockdown, farmers, too, are confused about their future
With the lockdown, farmers, too, are confused about their future

Farm-to-fork and clean-eating trends that helped many small and medium-sized urban farmers and ruled the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry in Mumbai for the past five years, have taken a hit with the lockdown affecting the transportation of the produce. With police officers also allegedly beating up vendors and delivery persons, supply chain has completely gone for a toss.

From exotic 'English' veggies to desi, heirloom produce, and even wild foraging, urban farmers set up infrastructure to grow produce according to a chef's menu, and created a supply chain of farmers across the state and nation to source black rice from Assam, Chinese bok choy from Pune and gluten-free Amaranth flour from Uttarakhand.

When restaurants took a call to shutter on March 18, it seemed like a temporary situation, lasting till March 31. But the 21-day lockdown announcement led to transport hurdles and labour scarcity, with police officers even allegedly beating up vendors and delivery executives.

And, all this sent the supply chain for a toss.

Last Saturday, police beat up Trikaya employees for delivering vegetables in Dadar. Trikaya, a vegetable growing firm, has nine farms across Talegaon, Ooty and Konkan. Owner Samar Gupta said 70 per cent of his produce now lies unsold. Before the shutdown over Coronavirus pandemic, they supplied bulk of their produce to Taj, Hyatt, Marriott and ITC hotels. Their restaurant clients included The Table, Indigo and Slink and Bardot. "The lockdown has hit our business," says Gupta. Today, his trucks are plying to Dadar with only one-third of stock, where usually 25 vegetable vendors bought the produce. "Now, only three to four are turning up. Everyone is scared of being beaten up by police. If my services are essential, why are police beating up my men? I want the government off my back," he said.

Exotic produce goes waste

In Saswad, Sanmitra Pandharpur and Amrita Chaudhury run Offerings that catered to restaurants and cafes in Mumbai and Pune. "We are badly hit. Our exotic patches of edible flowers will have to be completely culled. We mainly grow superfoods and exotic veggies, which is difficult to sell to a common man," Pandharpur said.

Farmers clueless

'Ata kay karaycha [What do we do now]?' This is the question farmers in 40 padas across 700 km in Ahmednagar district, Jawhar, Satara, Palghar, Jindal and Mokhada, have been asking Shailesh Awate, co-founder of OOO Farms, every day since the lockdown. The company used to supply produce to restaurants like The Bombay Canteen and Radha Krishna in Mumbai and Black Sheep Bistro in Goa.

Shashwat Organics will suffer losses as the firm’s stocks are stuck at logistics partners’ warehousesShashwat Organics will suffer losses as the firm's stocks are stuck at logistics partners' warehouses

"We have employed farmers to grow indigenous and heirloom produce of grains and fresh vegetables. We insure their crop, and the moment the harvest reaches our warehouse, they are paid off. Though they are not monetarily impacted and have food for at least two years, they are a bit baffled right now," said Awate.

Half of their produce is stuck in a warehouse in Talasari, while recently harvested crops are on the farms. Due to the scare, gram panchayats have shut the rice mills, even though it falls under essential services.

Apart from the heirloom tomatoes, beans, carrots and ratalu OOO farmers also grow exotic "English" vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, bellpeppers, Romain, Iceberg lettuce. "Due to the Covid scare, our wild food vegetable supply, which gave farmers a revenue bigger than paddy, has come under uncertainties. Once a year, farmers foraged for wild food and grass that earned them fantastic revenue. That went waste this year," Awate concluded.

Suppliers take a hit too

Suppliers, who source produce from farmers across India for the F&B industry as well as individual customers through their online stores have also taken a hit. Ruchi Jain, founder of Taru Naturals, which sources organic farm produce from a network of 10,000 small scale farmers across India, said, "We supply to restaurants including The Kitchen Garden, Smoke House Deli and Koko in Mumbai."

She has 500 kg of black rice from Assam, 500 kg of sticky rice, and another 500 kg of buckwheat sitting in the warehouse. "We will wait till mid-April to see what happens next. I have a staff of 10. We aren't paying salaries to our senior staff, but daily wage workers will be paid."

Shriya Naheta of Zama Organics says the challenges are logistic oriented and not with farm produce. "Produce from outside the state is not arriving and... We are working with 25 per cent of the staff, i.e. six people who live at the warehouse. We only have four vans right now. We are struggling to cope."

For shipments stuck at logistics partners' warehouses due to the government guidelines to the transporters for intra city and state transport, Shashwat Organics founder Vaishali Gadgil says they will have to bear losses. Her staff cannot come to work, and they have stocks of dry and fresh produce at their office too. Gadgil delivered dry produce like rice, grain, flour and ghee to restaurants, apart from pan-India online retail sale where she also has products like chivda, chutney and pickles made by women under MahilaBachatGadh. "If we can't deliver, we can't buy from our farmers. Harvest is standing as it is the season for watermelon, orange and pomegranate. We will wait and watch."

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First Published: 27 March, 2020 07:40 IST

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