Carving its way through the city traffic, as my cab stopped at my destination for the day, a smiling Mr Karthik Raman welcomed me to his small paradise where Nature offers its pretty trinkets in forms of herbs and greens.
Nature’s Treat is an organic farm situated in the outskirts of Bengaluru city. Founded by Karthik, who has a master’s in hospitality from Leeds University, UK and a 12 year extensive experience in gourmet cuisine and hospitality, Nature’s Treat delivers the nutrition of organically grown vegetables right at the door-steps of its 330+ subscribers.
A conversation which followed with Karthik and his wife/partner-in-crime, Sheeba, a bio-technologist, sent some explosions along my spine right to my brain to make me realize that farming is as intuitive as it is scientific. Just like any other profession, it requires dedication, professionalism and clarity of intent to yield positive results. Let’s see what they had to say.
Tell us about your initiative.
Sheeba– While we were still working in our corporate jobs, we took a small piece of land, less than a 10th of an acre, in Ooty, to experiment with growing food some 6 years back. We planted some English vegetables like lettuce, celery, rocket etc. as being a chef, he (Karthik) is crazy about them. We got a superb crop without any chemicals! Since then we never looked back.
Karthik– Being in hospitality sector, I used to see that customers would often order salads thinking eating less cooked greens would be a nutritional meal. They pay quite much for it. However, the greens were actually loaded with chemicals, and to a sensitive nose like mine, they even reek of them. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to provide organically grown and actually nutritious greens to the consumers. As we saw a market for organic food and greens in Bangalore, we took this 2 acre farm 8 months back. We saw brilliant results even here. I have taken another farm nearby to expand on the business.
What all do you grow here?
Karthik- We grow cherry tomato, pigweed (bathua), Malabar spinach, kale, fenugreek, coriander, broccoli, lettuce, pak choi, rocket lettuce, leeks, beetroot, celery, cabbage, and zucchini. We also offer herbs here like parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano in sun-dried form.
What was your motivation?
Sheeba– When I was young, and used to visit my grandmother, she would often go at the backyard where she used to grow certain veggies. Within minutes, she would prepare something delicious for us to eat.
As she grew older, she used to complain about everything we gave her to eat. “This is not at all the taste,” she would say. That got both of us thinking.
We discussed this with her and other grannies. They told us that they grew their vegetables in natural ways. That got us motivated to grow the way they used to. When they could grow their food without any chemicals so many years back, why can’t we? After all, it is something which has already been done in the past. As we started growing our vegetables organically, they began tasting exactly like they used to, and my granny is finally happy!
Our motivation was to reconnect with our food and nutrition, replicating the model of our elders. The business of it comes later. Professionalism is an attitude which can be applied anywhere. We want to practice farming professionally, generating reasonable income for our farmers.
Your comments on soil health and crop yields.
Sheeba– Soil is the mother. It is the source of our food and hence, for all life. We have to care for the soil as if it is a delicate flower. Micro-organism play an intricate role in maintaining soil health and keeping it in a good texture. They break down the complex compounds of nutrients and minerals available in the soil to simplified forms which can then be absorbed by the plants.
Our sole role is to enrich the soil with micro-organisms. We do that by not introducing chemicals, which kill them. Instead, we use everything we can get naturally.
Karthik– Prepared from cow dung, urine, jaggery, ripened fruits, and some soil organisms like earthworm, jivamritam is an elixir for the soil. As we spread it along with composted organic waste on our soil, humus is created, and that in turn increases the concentration of soil micro-organism. We also use waste vegetables as mulching material. Micro-organisms consume the same and get enough energy to stay and flourish. They decompose the organic matter, making soil carbon rich. Another important way to increase Carbon-Nitrogen ratio in the soil is to plant a variety of crops.
Sheeba– When the soil is nurtured, populations of both useful and harmful pests increase, but I don’t have to worry about harmful ones. My army of beneficial insects like spiders, grasshoppers, ladybugs, white and red ants and beetles etc. take care of them.
We have seen that by following these practices, the farm ecosystem becomes very resilient and self-sustaining. Pest attacks and crop diseases reduce. Such a system automatically starts giving an optimum yield.
The use of chemicals is a short cut attempt to provide nutrients to the plants in which soil quality is compromised. Just like medicines, they too have their side effects. They can never solve the root cause and problems will keep reappearing in different forms every year.
How has your experience of working with farmers been?
Sheeba– When we started farming here, the local villagers and farmers perceived us as non-serious city people without any knowledge of farming. There was nothing growing here other than weeds. As we dedicatedly worked on this piece of land and successfully cultivated it, they were surprised! Their appreciation gave us all the more confidence to keep doing the good work.
Karthik– Now we have 3 full-time farmers working with us on this farm. We pay them 40-50k salary per month. Actually, it is more of a profit sharing. We generate 2-2.5 lacs every month from this 2 acre land with their help. Why wouldn’t we treat them right? I have 5 farms to look after now. What I want is to instigate a sense of ownership in them. As they see positive monetary results of their hard work, that is happening.
For a farmer, income is the primary concern. Thinking chemicals will give them good yields, they shifted to inorganic farming. They aren’t aware of their harmful effects. We explain our model of growing organically to the local farmers and ask them to see the results for themselves. If it makes sense to them, we help them to change their land too and convince them to practice the organic approach.
Another area where farmers are on the back foot is access to market. If they follow organic farming, I offer to buy their produce back. I already have a marketing channel and a subscriber base who is consuming some of the vegetables that I grow. It makes sense to join hands with more growers to offer the customer more variety.
How has been the customer response?
Sheeba- Somewhere, the consumers had lost their trust as there were many brands selling questionable products as organic, and a dependable mechanism to actually know whether a produce is authentic or not is not yet in place. So how can a consumer be sure?
We ask our consumers to come and visit our farms, see how things are being grown, taste our produce and only if they are satisfied, subscribe with us.
Earning consumer trust and making her aware goes hand in hand. Once they started buying from us, some customers came back with queries like “There was a hole in the methi leaf, can I eat it?” Or “There was a white spider in my greens, is it safe?” We happily explain to them that the insects in the vegetables are the proof that they were organically grown and that no pesticides were used (laughs)!
Just as we have to work with the farmers, so do we with the consumers as well. Right now, the market is not so mature. They might not know it all, but they sure are exploring and understanding. We have to educate them too.
Karthik- There is also a notion that organic would mean costly. As we practice organic farming, we find it is a actually the opposite. There is hardly any input cost other than that of labour. In organic, the costs further reduce with time. It is the other way round in inorganic farming. Pests get resistant, and every year, more and stronger chemicals have to be bought and used.
It is because of organic farming that we are able to sell healthy greens at nominal prices. A bunch of lettuce delivered at home costs Rs 20, as it involves logistics costs too. If the subscriber is ready to pick it from the farm, we give it at Rs 10 only!
The other day, one of our customers called to check if we had Nightshade as somebody in his family was undergoing cancer treatment and the doctors had recommended it. I was happy to say yes! This also made me realize that there is demand. The challenge is to find it, and to market right. With that done well, we can save lives of the many farmers who are committing suicides.
What are your thoughts on eating local and seasonal?
Sheeba- If farms around Bangalore convert fully to organic, it will be enough to feed Bangalore. Same can be said for every city. Sikkim is completely organic and mostly self-sufficient in meeting their food demands. Such examples can be followed. On an organic farm, mostly everything will grow. So why shouldn’t one eat local? It will be cheaper due to lower logistic costs, fresher, and less harmful for the environment. Food wastage will also be less. The culture of consuming local has to grow.
Similarly eating seasonal is again a sustainable and healthier option. Consumer demand has to become conscious and logical. It is strange that doctors say take an apple every day. How will the earth give you an apple every day? We produce guava and pomegranate locally in this season. They are much more nutritious than an apple. People should have knowledge about their food because an informed consumer generates the right demand.
What is your mission?
Karthik- The mission is to grow good and eat better. We have to join hands with like-minded growers. I cannot feed Bangalore alone. We have to work together. I want to reach out and convince more people to adopt healthy farm practices. Just as I said, we have to make the consumers aware as well.
Karthik- We have acquired a bigger farm close by. Sometimes the local farmers see the technological assets like greenhouses, drip irrigation etc. and they feel they would have to probably invest a lot to farm organically. I want to make such perceptions go. So on that piece of land, I am practicing farming in traditional style, with basic tools and bullock cart. I want more farmers to feel comfortable with the idea of farming organically and join the movement.
I hope to open my own organic cafe right there. The chef in me is very excited about that!
I wanted to establish a training centre since some time for the farmers. The more time I spent growing and working with them, the more I realized that it is not just training but learning too which is happens. They all have something to teach. So, instead, I want to now establish a ‘centre for learning’, where minds can come exchange knowledge.
As I was taking leave from this mind stimulating interaction, Sheeba offered me a bunch of spinach and methi. “Munch as you go.” The plants were so delicious, with their distinct tastes, similar to their cooked versions, but only raw, without any spices or preparation, that I bowed to the wonders of nature. ☺
To know more about Nature’s Treat, please visit http://naturestreat.in/