Wed, Feb 15, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Spicing up the market for organic Himalayan crops

An organic revolution spearheaded by young farmers is germinating in the northeast state of Sikkim in India — but not all are optimistic about the speed of change

By Athar Parvaiz  /  Reuters/ Gangtok, India

A farmer sprays fertilizer in a paddy field following heavy rain on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India in September last year. Lately, there’s been a push, led by young, eco-conscious entrepreneurs, to switch to organic methods of farming throughout India.

Photo: AFP

Decades after farmers on India’s plains flocked to the “green revolution,” reliant on chemical fertilizers to drive agricultural growth, the northeast Himalayan state of Sikkim is trying its luck with organic farming — a pull for young, green-minded entrepreneurs who could help get the produce to market.

Last year Sikkim was declared 100 percent organic by the Indian government, while across the country, organic farming is growing rapidly.

India has the world’s highest number of organic producers at 650,000, or over a quarter of the global total, according to the Europe-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.

Abhinandan Dhakal, 28, who lives in Sikkim’s state capital Gangtok, has invested US$50,959 over four years, as well as his time and energy in laying the foundations for an organic business growing and selling Peruvian ground apple, or yacon, a crisp, sweet-tasting tuber.

“I have always been passionate about rural livelihoods,” said Dhakal, who joined an organization helping farmers in Tanzania after finishing his studies in environmental economics. Two years later, he returned to Sikkim with the ambition of becoming an agricultural entrepreneur.

To capitalize on Sikkim’s organic status and stand out from the field, he decided to focus on yacon, a high-value product that is often eaten raw or consumed for its health benefits in the form of syrup and powder.

He has taught other farmers in east Sikkim how to cultivate and sell the tuber.

“Ground apple grows only in hills and has a great demand in the market, especially outside India,” Dhakal said, noting its popularity in the Middle East, Europe, Singapore and Australia.

“It is much sought after by the food industry and health-conscious people as it has a lot of medicinal value,” he added.

Dhakal’s Shoten Network Group has tied up with marketing firms in Bangalore and Delhi to sell yacon to retailers and pharmaceuticals companies both inside and outside India.

He plans to raise his venture’s current annual production of 10 tons to 200 tons next year, by collaborating with more farmers.

Dharni Sharma, a 33-year-old farmer from Linkey in east Sikkim, said growing Peruvian ground apple had “brought a refreshing change.” It is also productive, he said, noting that 1 kg of seed yields 40-50 kg of ground apple, which sells for around US$0.67 per kilo.

Renzino Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, a Sikkim-based company that offers farmers services such as export and processing, said the shift to organic agriculture could lure back young people who had left for urban centres to find work in recent years.

“Some are returning to farming with big hopes,” he said.

They include Sonam Gyatso of Dzongu in north Sikkim, who previously worked for a state security agency. He quit his job after deciding to focus on organic farming on his four acres of land.

“I think I am doing well, as I now have a livelihood which I control myself,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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But not all of Sikkim’s farmers are so positive about the state’s “100 percent organic” label.

Some say they need more help from the state government to make the niche business profitable for them — especially to reach markets outside Sikkim where consumers are more willing to pay higher prices for organic produce.

Suraj Pradhan, a farmer of vegetables and spices in Nemche in south Sikkim, highlighted the need for cold storage and advice on improving yields using only organic fertilizers.

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