Faced with a desperate glut amid the lockdown, farmers team up with resident welfare associations
Bengaluru: In this summer of the coronavirus, who doesn’t have a tale of woe? For farmers it’s all-too familiar a situation: just when the crop is coming to hand, a natural disaster strikes and they are unable to reach the market in time and the produce rots in the field.
For horticulturists, this has been such a time: there’s a severe shortage of summer fruits and vegetables in the cities, but they are unable to market their produce.
Amidst this gloom, grape farmers in and around Bengaluru have got together to pull off a miracle. Unobtrusively and unknown to many, hundreds of grape growers have coalesced into a direct marketing movement in and around the city.
By skirting market structures and lockdown barriers, they are reaching resident welfare associations direct and selling their produce straight to the consumer.
This movement was initiated by the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) Alumni Association to help grape farmers find a market in this corona-hit summer.
Look at the difference this is making: while the government-run procurement agency HOPCOMS picks up an average of 2-3 tons of grapes per day from farmers, the direct marketing initiative is moving 250-300 tons a day.
UAS Alumni Association president Dr K Narayangowda says he never dreamed of such a huge response from the people.
How it began
Around the time when the coronavirus lockdown was declared, vineyards around Bengaluru were approaching harvest. The country was already in the grip of the coronavirus, and a total shutdown of markets spelt disaster for grape growers.
Bengaluru’s vines are not linked to the food processing industry; they sell most of their produce to the consumer. If they are shut out now, the crop would have to be destroyed.
Export to other states was out of the question, not with the transport system down and a lockdown everywhere else too. “We had to find a market right here,” said Narayanagowda.
So 12 days ago, the UAS Alumni Association knit up the farmers into a patchwork collective linked with WhatsApp, and made pitches to a few residents’ association.
“To understand the market, we went to the HOPCOMS main centre near Lalbagh. We found HOPCOMS procuring grapes for Rs 45 per kg from the farmer and selling it through its outlet just adjacent to the procurement centre for Rs 115 per kg. We were shocked by the margin it was making,'' Narayanagowda said.
Then they visited farmers in the Kolar and Chikkaballapur region and started working out the cost. Farmers were educated on how to pack them and what time they had to harvest once the order was confirmed and delivery schedules.
“We realised that Rs 55 per kg was an ideal price for farmers and we started reaching out to residents' associations by publicising our WhatsApp number. We landed a first order for 1.5 tons,” says Narayanagowda.
It was a good deal for the consumers: where they had to go to the market and buy grapes at Rs 120 per kg, they were getting the same stuff at their doorstep for no more than Rs 55-60 per kg.
In the next three days, the number of orders just baffled them. “We have a lot of residents' association working with farmers. At Rajarajeshwari Nagar, the Rotary Club president has taken the lead and four sets of farmers are supplying them grapes. At the end of the week, we ended up selling over 250-300 tons per day in Bengaluru alone. Besides learning about the market, many farmers are also directly exploring some of the markets,'' he said.
“We learnt a lot of things about grape marketing. In the first place, Bengaluru people were never exposed to quality grapes by traders. Very few had access to quality grapes. Some had given up eating grapes. Now, everyday new grape fans are being added to the list. We are making a database and we’ll launch online marketing by next year,'' says Narayanagowda.
What about mango?
The cooperative is planning to try the grape tactics with mango, which is just beginning to come into the market. The mango market is in a similar situation as grape: it cannot be shipped out of the state.
However, the grape tactics did not work with other fruits and vegetables. Tomato is harvested at the same time as grapes but its market is different. Over 80 per cent of tomato grown around Bengaluru goes to the Kissan factory for making sauce. But the since the factory is closed, there was no way farmers could find an alternative market. Traders refused to pick up the excess tomato because prices would crash. So farmers had no choice but to let the produdce rot on the farm.
Though vegetable demand and supply remains the same, the situation is exploited by traders. Citing social distance, they have created distance between product and consumer, driving the prices up. But farmers get no dividend from this.