The ‘Sampoorna’ Philosophy of Organic Farming | PLOUGH TO PLATTER
I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Santosh Bhapkar, Head of “Sampurna Shetkari Gat” an organic farming collective, aiming to produce 100% fresh, pure, non-toxic, and ‘satwik’ vegetables and cereals.
From the start of this collective, the journey was never easy. A 25-year-old young mind led the foundation stone and now we are seeing a collective which has made inroads in cities like Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Mumbai, and Thane. TRP took a phonetic interview to understand the struggle behind the success of the group. He was cooperative and helpful.
Q. How did you start ‘Sampurna Shetkari Gat’? Who motivated you for the farmers ' collective?
I feel that farmers are the backbone of our country as well as rural life and economy and if we give preference to agriculture, many of our problems will be solved. I learned this and thought that someone has to stand up for farmers. All my ancestors were farmers and I am too a farmer. I felt that we need to give a business outlook to our traditional agricultural practices. As the green revolution primarily focused on the production and ultimately on money, we don’t know whether it really helped farmers to earn the money but it certainly affected our health and physical fitness severely.
Traditional agricultural practices never had such undesirable effects on humans and our grandparents were much more physically fit than us. Along with it, I learned that if a farmer is producing alone, it will be inconvenient for him to sell the produce. Because he can plant/sow only one kind of crop and therefore getting the right value for his product is difficult. This is why though being a traditional business; farming does not help you to grow economically. But other businesses give you good returns and hence those businessmen become rich. Before this project though having 80 acres of land; I was forced to beg for money from these businessmen. I always remember a saying my father once told me, he said ‘for us first is farming, second is business and third is job’. He told me that if you want a career, make farming your career. Along with it he also said we have to do it chemical-free. So that is how it all started.
Q. How did this idea strike? Was there any other group you previously worked with?
In India and especially in Maharashtra agriculture business is one of the important businesses. But still, not a single elected representative is from a farming community and voices the opinions of farmers. From there, I got the idea of ‘Shetkari Sansad’ (Farmers Assembly). This was all happening when I was just 20 years old. At that time, I was not aware of organic farming. I felt like starting an organic farmers group in every village at that time. When I was thinking about the organization and the importance of groups I also thought about competition. So, from there I started a competition for two different organic groups. I made groups at different farming settlements in a village. After that, every farming settlement was made into groups and competition became intense. This trend continued until I reached the tehsil level.
Competition rules were simple that every group had to produce agricultural goods chemical-free and purely organic. They have to keep records of everything. Right from bed preparation to after harvest processes. They will use Jivamrut, Dashparni Ark, and like so many organic fertilizers and pesticides. This report would get audited by a committee in competitions. Till this, I was self-sponsoring every prize but as competition grew, I requested politicians to help. I was very much confident that now we can elect a farmer to represent us in assembly. However, I had zero experience in electoral politics. Politicians took this opportunity and used a platform built by me to advertise themselves. After seeing this I felt cheated and left this idea of an elected representative. In 4 years, I was able to unite almost 15000 farmers.
Then the second idea came to me. After this competition, I started my group. I reunited farmers under the banner of Sampurna Shetkari Gat. While building this brand I had the only vision that I have to build a supply chain that will allow farmers to directly sell their product to customers (bandhapasun umbaryaparyant). This product should be 100% fresh, pure, non-toxic, and ‘satwik’. If I can provide such quality products customers will stick to us and that is how Sampurna Shetakari Gat started its operations.
Q. How does your education help you to achieve this success?
You will be shocked after hearing my educational background. I have studied till the 9th standard only. After that, I started working on farms. But I always thought that at least someone has to be highly educated in our house. So, I supported Jyoti (wife of Mr. Bhapkar) and helped her earn an MSc after marriage. She was 12th pass when we married. Those times were hard, we woke up at 3 am and worked in a cowshed and milked them to send it to the dairy. With such a hectic schedule she continued her education. After MSc, she prepared for MPSC and because of her hard work and Persistence, she secured the post of Deputy Magistrate (Naib Tehsildar). While she was preparing, I also learned about various laws and management traits. After her service of 2 years, we decided to resign from the post and work for the betterment of the farming community via helping Sampurna Shetkari group to reach its goals and also by teaching students from the farming community about business education. We knew that without new vision farmers will not grow economically and we also knew that our current education system does not provide such kind of education.
Q. What kind of adversities did you face at the early stages of ‘Sampurna Shetkari Gat’?
Santosh: When we first launched our product in the market, we were unaware of certification and other such things. We thought our words would be enough to sell organic products in the markets. We were wrong. We came to know that the government certifies organic products and hence I requested them to provide one to us, but they told us they will not give us one and they have to follow the system. We fought with them for 3 years for the certificate and in meantime, Jyoti learned communications and marketing, we also trained our children, gave business vision to farmers, and also learned about layers of earth to understand which elements the particular piece of land needs. I have only grief that whatever we learned is not documented or it is mostly experience. That is why verification of that knowledge is slightly difficult. Standardization is necessary.
Q. What is the difference between previous groups and the current group?
Previously I made the groups at different locations and they all fought for the prize. I decided some guidelines and rules but management was wholly the matter of the group. So, they sometimes tweak the rules to win the competition. The current group is wholly managed by me and I am very strict about the quality of produce. As I manage the group, I can implement stricter rules related to quality and I maintain the quality as our utmost priority.
Q. How is your organizational/operational structure?
Sampurna Shetkari is run by farmers for the farmers. Generally, I visit the farm and check whether it requires any of the N, P or K, or other essential elements. Then I suggested to the farmer some crops based on soil and the last crop yielded. We use rotation methods for crops. Currently, I am encouraging or we are planning to plant more and more vegetables as they are short term and cash crops. I will give you an example to understand the basic operational structure of our collective. Suppose, you harvest 50 bags of wheat we, sampurna shetakari gat, will buy it but not right away after harvesting. As we all know that after harvest prices are in a downward spiral. So, we will tell you to keep it at your place. That’s how we manage inventory. Now say after 4-5 months prices will be high as wheat is a seasonal crop. Now, we will buy that wheat at the current market price from a farmer. If he sells it to us after cleaning, we will give him an additional 1/2 Rs per kilo. That way he will earn more than market price. From there we will take the charge and transportation, marketing and selling will be done by us. That is how we operate.
Q. How do you manage Human Resource for these operations?
As I told you before, we train farmers’ sons/daughters, after their formal education, for marketing and communications. They have various tasks such as expanding the customer base, maintaining communications with current customers, finding loopholes, if any, and correcting them. We also keep in mind that their formal education should be useful while working so we place them accordingly.
Q. What other farmers around you are doing right now? Why do they not want to be part of this movement?
Right now, almost 70% of the farmers in my village are working with me. But working with us is not an easy process. Farmers should possess the ability to digest any unnatural losses that might occur. If the struggle is persistent then man/woman might mentally exhaust. When I created this platform, many came with me to join the initiative. I had only one criterion that was quality. Those who were doing traditional farming needed no introduction and joined us easily, but some of us already had an experience of the market and they were doing chemical farming for many years. It is hard to convince them about quality overproduction. But I am committed to making Gundegaon a 100% organic farming center.
Q. What is the difference between your idea and other such initiative's ideas?
I met many people in the process. But it is painful to state that only a handful of them had different thoughts. Many initiatives are focused on productivity rather than quality. For that, they are breaking hills and putting black soil to harvest the land. Many farmers do not seem to understand that every locality has different soil properties. You should not torcher mother earth for your greed. She gave you plenty and you have to use those resources wisely. We all have to work for sustainable development. Our group is more than just a business. It celebrates its relationships with mother earth, with traditional agricultural practices. It is committed to healthy generations and their prosperity. Money is not the sole criterion of this group. We are people of morals. That is what differentiates our organic farming group with others.
Q. Do the government/NGOs help your organization?
The government always launches new schemes and we are aware of that but we tend to not take it. I banned many schemes in our organization. I feel that because of the schemes, farmers become dependent and workwise they become lazy. These schemes cripple farmers. We have put a criterion that we do not need anything free from anyone. If you want to buy something then only, we will accept your money. Otherwise, we do not need charity.
Q. What are the issues you faced during coronavirus? How are you dealing with it?
Coronavirus is a national adversity and in this difficult time, we need to support each other. However, we did not face major selling problems as we have reached our customers through social media and phone contacts. We made a kit of one week comprising necessary items such as cereals, vegetables, breadstuffs, and fruits and we sold this kit to our customers. We did face some problems with the police but we solved them too. After lockdown 1, many toll plazas started collecting taxes so we faced half to a kilometer of lines. Apart from some incidents, such as stopping at lay byes, everything went normal. We did some extra work because hand to hand delivery was not possible such as loading unloading at customers' points. We do not sell the product at APMC so, at that end, we also did not face any issues. We are glad and proud that we helped the country in these difficult times.
Q. How is family support during this venture?
I am very fortunate to have such a great family behind me in every situation. Apart from Sampurna Shetkari Gat, my wife, my children, my brother, and his family always stood behind me. I am blessed to have them in my life.
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