How organic farming and right prices are helping Kerala farmers

WAYANAD, KERALA: There is a light in Joseph Pendanath's eyes when he walks through his farm, whose thick foliage resembles a forest in parts. He checks how the nutmeg graft is doing, throws a coconut frond over a few spinach saplings for shade, caresses a pepper vine here, smells a green lime there, and loosens the soil around a slender arecanut tree. From the tubers underground to the tallest coconut tree, Pendanath's three acres in the foothills of Wayanad in Kerala is filled from soil to sky with layers of more than 30 food and cash crops. The ideal forest farm.

As drought, unseasonal rain, or pesticide wither the fields of millions of small farmers across India, the lushness of Pendanath's farm is bewildering. When asked what he did different, he says, "When a farmer doesn't choke the soil, it will give like you've never seen. And when the consumer pays me the price that can sustain this kind of farming, I can do more of this."

Pendanath is one of the over 4,500 hill district farmers in Kerala who form an alternative farming collective called the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK). These largely small and medium land holders — 10 per cent are women — do sustainable, organic farming that rejects mono-cropping for biodiversity, preserves and shares local seeds, and embraces the market. They largely export cash crop like spices, nuts and coconut to the growing group of ethical consumers in the West, and food crops like vegetables and rice to the local markets. While the national farm income in India is an average Rs 77,000 a year, FTAK chairman Thomas Kalappura says its members (with 0.3 to 4 acres of land) make at least Rs 1.5 lakh a year. In the tense environment of climate change, large scale agribusiness, and a complex mix of state dependency and apathy that threatens the future of agriculture, these small farmers are making profits.

FTAK was formed in 2005 by Kerala's oldest organic store, Elements in Kozhikode. The 600 farmers who were its first members were looking to increase market access for their organic produce, negotiate better prices, and as an extension of the existing tradition of welfare politics in Kerala, ensure trade justice. "The farmer's dignity is at the centre of the collective," says founder Tomy Mathew. "Small farmers are the worst off in India, but for ages, governments and NGOs have chosen to help them through aid, not trade."

Distress At Large Marginal and small farmers make up nearly 83 per cent of cultivator households in India, but nearly all of them spend more than they earn. Between 2001 and 2011, 9 million farmers quit cultivation and 38 million joined the ranks of agricultural labourers. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, about 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide since the nineties, 5,650 just in 2014. About 72 per cent of these were smallholders, and the main reason was bankruptcy or indebtedness. "Input costs — water, fertiliser, seeds, machines, labour and fuel — have risen while prices for the final produce have not risen proportionally," says Kavita Kuruganti, convenor of the Bengaluru-based Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. "The conventional market is neither free nor fair, as highly subsidised producers are allowed to dump low quality products into the market, and price out small farmers. This has made small holdings largely unviable."

The hill districts of Kerala — Kannur, Kasargod, Wayanad, and Kozhikode — are not parched like several agrarian regions in the country, but here too, farmers were facing the brunt of seed and fertiliser costs, Kerala's quintessential high wages, and the artificially fixed low market prices for farm produce. Behind even the most glistening farms could be a mountain of debt or insurmountable price worries. This is why the farmers who formed FTAK in 2005 focussed on economics first. "Price is the greatest pitfall for the Indian farmer," says food and trade policy Devinder Sharma. "Governments rig it with subsidies and market regulation, global corporations rig it with inordinate access, and consumers worsen it by wanting to pay as little as possible even if they can afford more."

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