An interview with Ashwin Paranchpe who is an organic farmer and the founder of Gorus – a farmer’s collective, located outside of Pune in Nanegaon in Kolwan Valley in the Sahyadris. This collective brings small farmers together to sell organically grown, seasonally planned produce to a fixed number of consumers in urban Pune.
Tell us a bit about yourself. When and How did the idea of this business come about? How did your team come together? Who/What was the inspiration behind it?
My journey into the field of Community Support and Agriculture(CSA) has been one that has been shaped by many experiences. After completing my Masters in Horticulture in Florida, I worked on an organic farm for 6 months and studied the whole system. Then I travelled to Spain, newly married, I worked for a year in CSA in the Catalonian town of Valls. Thereafter, I also held a research job with the State Government in Barcelona. On my return to India, I wanted to implement all that I had seen and learnt in the past few years. My main concern was that when urban sprawl takes over farmland, food production gets more alienated, as do cultural and social spaces. In 2007 we started the CSA network in Pune, with an aim to create a framework that goes beyond monetary exchanges of food, bring farmers together and connect them with families that appreciate where and how their food comes from. This is how Gorus began. In 2008 we expanded to about a core group of 35 farmers spread over four Talukas – Mulshi, Purandar, Shirur and Daund. Our clients (mostly urban families in Pune city) increased from 20 families in 2008 to more than 200 in 2014. Our aim is to encourage farmers to grow food organically and simultaneously create a support group of eco-conscious consumers, so that we can assure the farmers that they will not only receive a stable and fair price throughout the year, but also the goodwill and support of those who buy their food.
What makes you so passionate about the environment?
Once you start farming with your hands, you realize how closely our health is connected to the health of our planet. Through modern agriculture (which uses heavy farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs) man has already destroyed much of the fertile soils, poisoned the groundwater and polluted the air beyond anybody’s imagination. If we want our lands to remain productive, our water to be pure, and our air to be clean, we need to stop using chemicals in agriculture.
What does the word co-operative mean to you? Can you explain your business model?
The co-operative movement that started in the 60s was largely a failure, probably because the vehicle for the whole movement was political rather than social. The milk and sugar cooperatives are one of the largest of its kind in India, well intentioned but not implemented properly. I would say, Gorus is not a “cooperative” in the strict sense but a collective of farmers, consumers, and voluntary organizations who work in the farming sector. Farmers are not just suppliers of a commodity, they are ‘annadaatas’. Farmers and consumers must come together and form a partnership of mutual support, understanding, and respect. We try to create a bond where Gorus becomes a platform to facilitate this process.
The recently organized rice planting activity was one such example where Gorus brings farmers and consumers together. At such events, we also try to increase the consumer’s knowledge about local varieties, organic farming techniques, and the seasonal nature and vulnerability of farming vis-à-vis the climate, soil fertility, and water availability. We also try to de-mystify some of the concepts of organic farming, by showing simple examples in the farms so that consumers understand the logic and fundamental principles of organic farming rather than getting confused with the huge gamut of terminologies, philosophies, and styles of organic farming that one comes across on the internet or in books.
Why should people support and buy from food co-ops like Gorus?
Co-ops ensure fair distribution of the consumer’s money. In the conventional market channel, there are usually four players involved when it comes to food distribution – the producer, the aggregator, the wholesaler and the retailer. Co-ops help bring this chain down to two. Also, with the conventional model, farmers do not get their fair share of the consumer’s rupee. With organic produce, it’s hard to ask farmers to implement better practices without any guarantee of returns.
At Gorus, we have a thumbrule that farmers receive a minimum of 50% of the consumer’s rupee, with their share going up to 70-80% in case of grains and non-perishables. Transparency is an essential part of our work and farmers are kept in the loop with our finances. It’s important that we create an atmosphere where our people don’t feel the need to cut corners or feel squeezed. There is also a lot of thought that goes into the way we work – for example, all our packaging is environmentally sensitive, our produce is packaged into biodegradable plastic. Not being formally trained in business management or marketing means that I generally have to work twice as hard to accomplish simple goals which others can accomplish easily. However, the unending support and understanding of consumers and the backing of some very genuine organic farmers, professionals, friends, and of course, my wife and parents, is the reason why Gorus has not only survived for six years, but is slowly gaining more depth and width as an organization.
Is organic certification important? What kind of organic certifications attest your produce? What should customers look out for when they buy organic?
Yes, organic certification is important. I look at organic certification more as a system that commits the farmers to observe self-discipline and remain faithful to the organic principles they have decided to follow for growing food. Of course, it also helps them to distinguish their produce from chemically grown produce, and enables them to get a premium price. On the consumers’ side, certification is important since it gives them at least a basic level of assurance of what they are buying. But by no means should one rely solely on a certificate. I urge consumers to go to the farms, be in frequent touch with farmers, participating in farming and share the responsibility in whichever way they can, rather than just relying on a certificate. Creating personal bonds with farmers also puts a moral pressure on farmers for not cheating.
With Gorus farmers, we use the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), which is a peer review system for organic certification. In my opinion, PGS certification is more transparent, affordable, and effective than third-party certification. I also appreciate the approach of PGS wherein the farms are ‘appraised’ by peers rather than ‘inspected’ by an inspector. PGS is structured in such a way that exchange of knowledge, techniques, and experiences (between the peers/farmers who do the appraisal and the farmer who gets appraised) is encouraged, thereby improving the capabilities and skills of both. Of course, in PGS there is no room for those who break the rules and punishment for doing so is strict and decisive. In terms of organic norms, PGS follows the same norms as most of the internationally accepted protocols for organic farming, but in addition, PGS incorporates principles of biodiversity conservation and environmental stewardship as integral parts of the organic farming system, which are often missing in other protocols. PGS is officially recognized and promoted by IFOAM, especially for farmers or co-ops whose produce is not intended for export and is sold locally.
Co-operative enterprises achieve sustainable development for all – is the theme for this year’s International Co-operatives Day. Could you elaborate on this and share your own personal experience?
True co-operation between stakeholders is often lacking (if not totally absent) in Indian co-operatives in the agricultural sector. In my view, co-operatives would run better if they were a-political, and the decision makers truly and sincerely represent the producers’ as well as the consumers’ best interests. Perhaps this is why Gorus has evolved into a hybrid between a co-operative and an ethical commerce enterprise. It is registered as a not-for-profit Company u/s 25 of the Companies Act, 1956 with no share capital. Although Gorus has achieved modest economic goals, it has grown and adapted organically, and most of its achievements are in terms of consumers’ goodwill, farmers’ support, and in establishing very close working relationships with several other social enterprises across five states in India.
Share with us one environmental tip that always stays with you – an environmental tip that others can also inculcate into their lives.
I would like to set a challenge to urban families – grow one meal yourself….it will help you to understand, appreciate, and enjoy farming, and forever change the way you look at food!
An interview by Aditi Bhonagiri – a communication specialist who has worked in the field of immigration policy and current affairs. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Development Studies and is interested in sustainable development in the South Asian region.