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  • Rent a cent, reap a harvest

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    Chennai:

    Red diamonds, he calls them. The fruits of his labour. And since January, Gopinath Jayaraja and his coterie of city farmers have harvested three tonnes of this precious commodity. Incidentally, it has also made his idli-dosa batter taste spectacular.

    During Pongal 2017, Jayaraja and friends decided to try their hand at community farming on a leased land near Chengalpet, calling the initiative Valam 1.0, after the organic produce store they run in Chennai. Their first crop — the red diamonds, a native rice grain called poongar. “We sell organic products from our Tirunelveli farm but found customers in Chennai were interested in trying their hand at farming. So, for Valam 1.0, we got people to invest in leasing five acres from a farmer to cultivate rice,” says Jayaraja, who farms part-time, and works full-time at an IT firm.

    With 54 investors joining in for round one, Jayaraja has begun preparing ground for Valam 2.0 near Mambakkam. “At the end of the crop cycle, investors share the harvest with everyone taking home a certain amount of organically grown native rice. The idea of farming draws people in. Most of those who put in their money, also put in their time working the land along with the farmer who owns the land,” says Jayaraja.

    The Valam collective is one of several mini urban-rural joint ventures cropping up across TN, which not only encourage organic farming and give city-dwellers a chance to explore their entrepreneurial side, but also help rural farmers who are in dire straits financially.

    Anything that gives financial respite to farmers is an encouraging trend, believes Dr M Maheswaran, director of research, TN Agricultural University, Coimbatore. “Many from the IT industry are getting into organic farming and collaborating with farmers. The government too is facilitating it,” he says.

    At Valam, land is leased from a farmer who also works at the collective, thereby earning him a steady income, apart from what he makes from the rest of his farmland. Divya Shetty and Vishnu Vardhan of Indian Superheroes (ISH) from Coimbatore, started a similar venture a few months ago, where people can rent out a portion of farmland for three months to a year. “We have 823 organic farmers on board and have got several NRIs to book farmlands, which they want to cultivate whenever they come down,” says Shetty, 27, a management graduate whose grandparents were farmers. ISH also runs weekend workshops with farmers to generate interest in sustainable agriculture.

    Ilumurugan, a farmer who has signed on with ISH, says doing workshops has not just given him a second stream of income but a voice too. “When people from the city work on the farm, they understand the effort we put in. I don’t know how much of a steady income it will generate but at least I see respect in their eyes at the end of every interaction,” says the 22-year-old, who has a 15-acre farm where he grows turmeric, cotton and sugarcane.

    At ISupportFarming, a community initiative in Cuddalore and Virudhunagar, co-founders and brothers Vijaykumar and Vasanthkumar Mani see themselves as a “hinge” between the disjointed worlds of the officegoer and the farmer. Here, all the working capital is given by people from the city, and the farmer who owns the land does the work, while we monitor the process, says Vijaykumar, an HR consultant with a farming background.
    “The farmland is evaluated on aspects like water facilities, and farmers on social credibility before they are signed on. After the harvest, farmers get 80% of the returns, investors get 15%, and we take 5%,” says Vijaykumar, adding that they are now working with 80 farmers, 50 investors, and 250 acres of land, growing paddy, maize, groundnut and watermelon.

    Vijakumar says the average investment to cultivate one acre through one crop cycle of three to four months is `25,000. “Most of our investors are IT professionals and each of them usually puts in `5,000. At the end of a quarter, we divide the profit and they can choose to reinvest or pull out,” says Vijaykumar.

    But for investors like Gokulavan Jayaraman, for whom farming is the ‘ultimate dream’, pulling out is nowhere in the picture. “I started a year ago with an investment of `5,000, not expecting anything other than the satisfaction of helping a farmer and spending time working in fields with my family. I was surprised to realise farming was also giving me financial returns, 12% in the first year,” says Jayaraman, lead auditor at a city IT firm.

    “I’m now in this for the long run,” he adds. And of course, the organically grown watermelon he brought home from his farm is just the more mouth-watering piece of that pie.

    source: http://www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com / The Times of India / News> City News> Chennai News / TNN / November 11th, 2017

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