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My journey with the farmers of Vidarbha and how Happy Roots was born

My whirl winding journey in the so called “notorious” region of Vidarbha (Maharashtra) began after an unforeseen departure from my previous startup Krishi Star. My entry into the world of agriculture was an accident in March 2014, when my passion to work with low income communities pulled me to the dream of working with small and marginal farmers. The idea of Happy Roots was initially as messy as my desk below while I was wrecking my brains over several ideas which can potentially benefit the farmers of Vidarbha.

My messy desk and my vision board

My messy desk and my vision board


I soon decided to take a trip across the region (Akola district to be specific) and the journey introduced me to some eye opening facts about the state of agriculture here. Vidrabha, like I mentioned before, is notorious for rising number of farmer suicides (as per data in the last decade, an average of 10 farmers commit suicide every single day). Some say that it is the endless loop of cash credit crisis the farmers’ face that forces them to end their lives while some blame it on weather conditions and lack of right agriculture infrastructure in the region. There is a study of psychiatry conducted by The Department of Psychiatry, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sewagram and Wardha district administration that throws some light into the deep rooted socio-economic challenges farmers in Vidarbha face. Few thought provoking points are listed below:

  1. Absence of adequate social support infrastructure at the level of the village and district
  2. Uncertainty of agricultural enterprise in the region
  3. Indebtedness of farmers
  4. Rising costs of cultivation
  5. Plummeting prices of farm commodities
  6. Lack of credit availability for small farmers
  7. Repeated crop failures
  8. Dependence on rainfall for farming
  9. Lack of political will and insight in the region

The points in BOLD are the ones I believe are the most pressing and need immediate attention not only from the government but from corporates, NGOs, entrepreneurs and agriculture experts. My own field research and interactions with various stakeholders, gave me a glimpse of all the problems listed above. Vidarbha is a rainfed area and like other regions across the country has seen some drastic changes in weather condition in the last few years. Cotton and pulses are the main crops the farmers grow and orange is the other horticulture crop. I realized that diversification of crops along with finding a source of income for these farmers which doesn’t highly depend on weather conditions is something that I wanted to focus on. Thus started our first ever project into backyard poultry farming for small and tribal farmers in Akola district.

Cotton, the main crop of the region. The organic cotton growers are facng stiff competition from BT Cotton growers

Cotton, the main crop of the region. The organic cotton growers are facing stiff competition from BT Cotton growers

It’s been six months into this project  and the learning has been tremendous. I learned about the on ground challenges a food business faces and about the ones I never predicted. Poultry farming has its own set of technicalities in terms of bird health, bird productivity, bird feed, bird raising etc. along with identifying the right breed you want to raise. At Happy Roots, our long term vision is to not only support small & tribal farmers but also revive indigenous birds and plant breeds that belong to India, which for various social and economic reasons are soon disappearing from our food basket and food chain.

We are trying to bring Indigenous, cage-free, tan-shell eggs in the market which are free from antibiotics and chemicals of all sorts.

Indigenous, cage-free eggs from the basket of Happy Roots

Indigenous, cage-free eggs from the basket of Happy Roots

During my market research I have come across various malicious practices used in the poultry industry like excessive use of hormones, antibiotics and chemicals fed to the birds to increase their productivity. The birds are literally treated like an egg producing machine. There is a whole set of research which states the ill effects of such rearing practices on bird mental and physical health. The antibiotics fed to the birds stay in the food chain for more than 25 years. Some of these antibiotics are the ones which are usually fed to humans!

My goal is not to taint the industry but to bring out the facts about the food that we eat. As a consumer of poultry products these facts make me worried and I believe that these would raise concerns for many others too. The question of food productivity and thus food security is still remains for indigenous bird breeds and my work is also to combine forces/institutions to research on this subject.

Happy Roots today has reached a milestone and that is what made me write my first blog post about our awesome journey (we have been on a rollercoaster ride). We have produced our first batch of eggs and our food tests show that our product beats most egg brands in the market, in terms of nutrition, hands down! My journey is supported by an excellent team at Chetana Organic foundation, which works relentlessly for the livelihood improvement of 5000 small & marginal farmers in Vidarbha. As our partners they not only share our vision to generate higher incomes for this farmer group but also share our principles of trust, honesty and integrity. I have found equally awesome customers in Pune (Chefs, restaurant owners) who believe in serving the best safe food to their customers and want to bridge the gap between the industry and farmers. I would probably need another 1000 word post to appreciate my partners and customers 🙂

Happy Roots with the team Chetana and our farmers with the first batch of eggs

Happy Roots with team Chetana and our farmers with the first batch of eggs

Last but not the least I just can’t thank enough the farmers I am working with. The farmers in Vidarbha are enterprising, bold and our passionate about working for the upliftment of their fellow farmers and their village. One thing that the farmers need here is people like us who can take a lead and leap of faith to disrupt the status quo. The potential is huge and the opportunities are tremendous in areas that can directly touch the lives of million farmers.

One such opportunity in deformed oranges called

One such opportunity is to explore the potential of deformed oranges called “sardar”. Sardar doesn’t look shiny and round but tastes equally well as any good quality orange. This type of fruit gets rejected in the market or fetches lower price just because of the deformity

We are soon conducting our pilot in Pune. We still do not know how things would shape up but Happy Roots, Chetana, our farmers and our customers truly believe that whatever the case maybe we will keep turning stones on the path we are walking and try make a difference one-step at a time.

Want to send wishes, love and hugs or just want to connect with us? Please write to us at reemasathe@gmail.com. It’s always wonderful to hear kind and encouraging words or receive a helping hand  J

Yours truly

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Under the mango tree

morceau-de-goyave

Sitting under the mango tree

I lie in the shade carefree,

I see the sun glowing high

I feel the breeze passing by.

I know my heart is weary and so is my mind,

I believe the world has been unkind.

My eyes move around and the surrounds look tired too,

Everything looks tainted when I look for a clue or two.

My thoughts are interrupted by a drop of rain

I didn’t see things change while I chased my pain.

Time had gone by and life had moved on

I woke up from my dream to another hopeful dawn…

10 best pictures and anecdotes from my Solo trip to Kumaon

Though it’s been six months since I got back from my first solo leisure trip, the memories of the journey are still afresh. It feels as if I have just set my foot back in Pune from the serene and beautiful Kumaon. I was so overwhelmed with my trip that I could not find the right way to re-share my experience until now. So here is my travel story from the foothills of Himalaya, in 10 best pictures and anecdotes:

  1. The quaint little town of Bhimtal and its hardworking women: My stay in Kumaon further validated my impression about women in small towns and villages. They are the unsung heroes who earn a living, take care of household chores and yet look so stunning, brimming with energy. Light pale skin, boxed faces and unadulterated smile is how I remember them from Kumaon. Meet Prema and Hema, two farmers from Bhimtal, who were diligently sowing seeds while I was strolling in their paddy field.
    Prema & Hema, the farmers from Bhimtal

    Prema & Hema, the farmers from Bhimtal

    It was about sunset. The duo pleasantly looked up when I called them “Didi” (elder sister) to start a conversation. Hema quickly introduced me to both of them while Prema continued her work silently acknowledging my presence. They were winding up the day’s work. When I asked them if they weren’t afraid of snakes and other animals in the dark they said “We are, but if we keep being afraid of them who else would finish our work. Snakes have bitten us before but that doesn’t stop us from earning our bread and butter”

Every time I meet farmers I pledge not to waste food. Every grain on our plate comes after months of their toil and hard work.

  1. Hiking through mysterious narrow paths: My hiking trips in Bhimtal raised my love for the activity to another level. When I was planning my trip to Kumaon, I was very sure that I will tuck myself in a cosy room with a book and coffee. An unplanned hike, to give some fellow travellers company, introduced me to these mystery trails which can lead you anywhere – a jungle, an army habitation, paddy fields or yet another village!
    Hiking across a trail in Bhimtal

    Hiking across a trail in Bhimtal

    You will certainly find blood sniffing leeches hidden in the twigs and soil, but the mystery you will unfold while following these tracks is worth the bites.

  1. Reinvented comfort food: “Pahadi Maggi” is the first thing on the menu at any road side Dhaba in Bhimtal. I heard so much about it from the beginning of my trip that I had to eat the best one in town. Here is how a sumptuous plate of pahadi maggi looks like:

    "Pahadi Maggi"

    “Pahadi Maggi”

It was a delicious mixture of all local vegetables cooked with some oil. It was nothing exotic, but if you are a hungry traveller you will relish every bite of it. I have heard about pahadi Maggi and its presence across the Himalayan region. I guess we all know how delicious a piping hot bowl of Maggi tastes in colder weather. Team it with a local plate of Rajma Chawal and thank me later.

  1. Hidden lakes: Bhimtal is famous for its lakes. There are around 4-5 beautiful lakes which surround this town. Sattal (seven lakes) is a famous tourist spot but our hiking group was more interested in Garudataal (Vulture lake), which only the locals seemed to know. After a long walk and a lot of guidance from school kids heading back home, we reached the lake (there wasn’t a sign of a single vulture, but the silence in the air was definitely morbid).

    Approaching the lake

    Approaching the lake

The green color of the water matched perfectly with the trees laying shadow on its still water. We found an open church right at the shore of the lake. I have never seen a church, amphitheatre style, before. There was a lone altar facing several arched stairs. It looked like the place had just heard a sermon from the bible. This lake is also used by priests to baptise couples and children. As I sat by the stairs of the church and gazed at the lake, it looked like the place held a lot of untold stories which sneak out in the dark.

  1. The local affair: Fairs were a part of my childhood when I lived in a small town in Gujarat. As I moved across various cities, I never saw them again and thought they are already a chapter of history. One of the mornings at our guesthouse in Bhimtal, the cook told us that there is a fair in the town. The same evening I decided to visit it. It was exactly how I had last seen it. 1.5Women glittering in their studded sarees and jewellery, men sitting in a circle and discussing local politics, teenagers dressed to impress their dames and shops selling everything from food to toys and household knick-knacks. The shops looked like apes who were progressing towards modern-day civilization. A fading history on its own.
  1. Letters to the god: My next destination after Bhimtal was Shaukiyathal. A village closer to the foothills of Himalaya. On my way I met the beloved God of Kumaon, Golu Devta. He seemed particularly fond of bells because his temple was full of them. There were A4 size pages attached to each bell, some were handwritten and some typed. I am sure I broke a hell lot of temple rules but I couldn’t stop myself from reading those papers. 1.6These papers were letters or more so written prayers. Job, property disputes and marriage ruled the subject of writing whereas some wanted the god to free them from lust so that they can focus on their studies. I am sure Golu Devta is a very busy god. His temple seemed nothing less than a government office with piles of papers waiting to be addressed since ages. I left with a smile and reduced the deity’s burden a bit by not asking for anything.
  1. Picturesque views: If you are in Shaukiyathal, rest assured to never see a site which would leave you unimpressed. From distant slow clad Himalayan peaks to playground on ridges and stretches of green, you will see it all. If you want to really know what “pin drop silence” means, this is the place. You can catch plenty of meditative solitude here while you sip some chai made on mud stove and gaze into infinity.1.7
  1. The lifestyle: Farming and cattle raising is the primary source of livelihood here. So you would see goats, buffalos and harvested crops occupying the patio of every house. 1.8.1People live in mud houses and have 1.8belongings only to meet basic needs. The houses are two storeys painted in blue and white; the lower level is for cattle and the upper level is their residence. People in Shaukiyathal are never in a rush. After the day’s hard work women get busy cooking meals while the men assemble at the local tea shop and chatter about politics, business and how hospitality will raise their incomes in future.
  1. The plight: Farming being the primary source of income for the villagers, they invest most of their money on their farms. One natural calamity or rummage by wild animals ruin the profits for one entire harvest season.1.9

The picture is of a small potato farm which faces regular nuisance from monkeys. A dialogue with the farm owner left me worried. He said “For tourists like you, Wild life sanctuaries are an attraction but for us they are a curse. The leopards eat our cattle and the monkeys eat our crops. This leaves us with such little produce that it is difficult at times to even manage a meal for our family”. I saw another example of an unending battle of man v/s wild.

  1. People in Shaukiyathal and nearby villages are extremely welcoming. A wave and a smile are usual when you pass by a house. Don’t be shocked if people invite you to share a cup of tea or a bowl of fresh yogurt with them. It took me a while to get used to it. Nicety from strangers is so scarce that I found it unbelievable that people were sharing food and life stories, in exchange of nothing but a hearty conversation and laughter.1.11

I also visited the wild life sanctuary at Binsar, which is around 50 kms from Shaukiyathal. Because of rain and dense fog I couldn’t click any pictures but I did hike across the forest for few hours. Introduction to local flora and fauna, sight of a barking deer and a glimpse of Vikram Seth’s (the famous writer) house gifted me another walk to remember.

The true gift

santaHeader

Altered sleep and a woven dream

A stocking outside the door that was always left unseen

A string of faith and a smile of trust

This is all I had on every Christmas.

My friends cheered with their hands full of candies;

I looked at my mum with a broken heart,

And endlessly asked myself “Do I never hit the old man’s chart”?

I have grown older and this eve I realised;

I have all that I ever wanted and wished

Old man I guess after all gave me what I preached.

He made me my own Santa all these years,

Today afternoon he whispered this truth in my ears.

Look out of the window

window-looking-out-across-vineyards-of-the-chianti-region-tuscany-italy

 

I wrote this post to ease the pain in my heart. I am finding something amiss for the last few days. This happens once in a while when I get too occupied with my work and household responsibilities.

Today I am happy because couple of months back I found the courage to follow my heart. I quit my luxurious corporate job and I now work for a startup that supports small farmers. As I write this post, I am sitting in a canteen of a tribal development center, in the interiors of Gujarat. The sun has set and I only hear some folk music in the background. Whenever I travel to places away from home I connect to my mind and soul. I ask them if they are happy. But today my soul said that it has missed that one thing I have always loved – sharing my experiences through my blog. Few months back when I had not quit my job, I used to read a lot and blog. Then, I wasn’t too busy but I was doing things that keep my soul healthy. Now I am busy, enjoying my work but my soul is a little unwell. My soul loves me – taking a day off, going for a walk by myself, listening to music while I read or just sit idle and gaze at trees. This is “my thing”. Everyone has their “own thing” that helps them cleanse emotionally. But many a times we forget about them. My room at the village hostel has a window that overlooks the forest. I looked out of it this evening and tried to dig my pain. The solution wasn’t hard, I just had to pick my laptop and write, share my untold thoughts and stories.

Have you been missing an old hobby? If the answer is yes and the reason is that you are too busy to pursue it, look out of your window and give it another tough thought. Maybe you are just in love with the idea of being busy all the time. Maybe you do not know how to draw happiness from things you love and instead are busy living up to someone else’s expectation. Whatever is the reason, you do not want to look into the mirror one day, see your graying hair and regret about things you could not do in your life that you truly yearn for. So every now and then peek out your window, do what your soul has missed and liven it up again.