The principles of Slow Food are universal – to promote good, clean, fair, seasonal food and support local producers. Every Slow Food group operates differently according to its own context. In December I was fortunate to meet a dedicated young man who is bringing Slow Food principals mainstream in a corner of Rajasthan, India.
Rohit Jain is a modest and charming young man with a mission. His grandfather was a village farmer whose son migrated to Udaipur to find a better life for his family. Rohit earned a Masters degree in computer engineering, but his heart wasn’t in his work. He felt his life needed more purpose and he started teaching children in a nearby slum. Then he went to a village in Gujarat to teach children there and soon realized the enormous challenges the farming families faced. The farmers were unable to compete with the economies of scale of mass-produced agricultural technologies. They were often forced to look for alternative sources of income, usually by moving to Mumbai to work in factories.
We discussed migration patterns from farm to city. I told him that in Bali many young people no longer wanted to work the land and preferred ‘clean’ jobs in hotels, restaurants or spas. He explained that this was not the case in Rajasthan where tourism is still quite undeveloped. He’d consulted many families who wanted to stay on their ancestral land and continue their village way of life, but could see no option than to migrate to cities for factory work because the return from farming was so poor. Without the all-important bridge to market they had no financial security.
Rohit decided to build that bridge. His goal was to create a socially responsible enterprise connecting farmers using sustainable agricultural practices with urban consumers. He had no idea what would be involved and it has taken years of dedication and hard work.
It started small. In 2011 Rohit launched an NGO called the Banyan Foundation and opened a small organic food shop. Business was slow at first but he began to network with Slow Food, travelling to Italy for Terre Madre and meeting farmers from around the world.
He soon became aware of the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) of which he is now Secretary. The OFAI supports new farmers in the group with non-hybrid seed and trains them in chemical-free cultivation. There are plenty of animals in Rajasthan – cows, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats roam the desert everywhere – so natural fertiliser is plentiful and water is not a problem in this area. The farmers were already skilled at dryland cultivation and benefited from the superior seed and farming techniques.
In 2015, after four years of hard work, Rohit was still struggling. Lacking the cash to buy the next harvest from the farmers, he came close to shutting down the project. Then his work came to the attention of the UK-based Social Entrepreneurs’ Trust which not only granted him a large, soft loan in 2016 but also provided a mentor/advisor to help build the business. With this advice he created a private company called Banyan Roots Organic which began to attract private investment. The loan enabled him to build an integrated production and storage centre. In 2017 Rohit won the Millennium Alliance Award from the Government of India and USAID for innovation in agriculture.
In 2108 Banyan Organics produced and sold 90 tons of lentils, cereals and spices. With the systems now in place and the processing centre fully equipped, the goal is 150 tons in 2019.
“I chose the banyan tree to symbolize the work because the banyan shelters everything in its shade – animals, birds and humans. Its roots are deep in the land. We’ve been able to revive indigenous local seeds and tradition-honouring farming practices which lay as much emphasis on the land as the crop that is grown on it. Only when the natural ecological balance of the soil is restored and preserved can the food it produces be optimally wholesome and flavourful.
“It’s always been my goal to make it possible for farming families who want to stay on the land to do so. This has been achieved for 350 farmers and we continue to add new farmers to the project.”
Every village in the group has a co-ordinator who documents the harvest of each farmer before it’s collected by Rohit’s team and brought to the processing centre in Udaipur. Here each sack is recorded and stored until processing. There are several industrial-quality machines to husk, clean, sort and grind the lentils and cereals. But the fine cleaning is done by seven women who sit companionably together removing every stone and faulty grain by hand, exactly as Wayan Manis and I clean heritage rice in Bali.
The processing unit protects the crop from the post-harvest damage which often sees much of the harvest lost to spillage, insect damage and mould due to poor storage facilities and lack of access to transport.
Rohit’s system keeps the supply chain short and transparent to maximise return to the farmers, who are now prospering. He is focusing on traditional grains and encourages the farmers to produce heritage wheat, millet, corn and sorghum.
I was surprised to find corn among the crops. Rohit says that there are hundreds of varieties of heritage corn being grown in India and about 40 are being conserved by his project by tribal farmers in Rajasthan. Some varieties can be harvested in 65 days, some yield 4 ears of corn per plant. At a recent maize festival farmers brought samples of yellow, black, white, red and mixed-colour heritage corn.
During his visits to the villages, Rohit found that the food he was served there was far more flavourful than anything he had eaten in the city. He began to experiment with farming and discovered that he loved cultivating the land. He’s now purchased a small plot in his ancestral village and plans to move there with his family – a rare example of reverse migration. His children will grow up in a traditional village with the advantage of educated parents and access to nutritious heritage foods.
Rohit’s wife Julie grew up in a village and is deeply involved in the project. She’s published a cookbook of previously uncollected vegetarian recipes traditional to the tribal farmers.
Rohit founded and heads the 70 member Slow Food community in Udaipur. He organises events, food festivals and parties to familiarise the people of Udaipur (especially the women, who make most of the food purchasing decisions) with Slow Food concepts. This year he’s launching a food co-operative which will more closely link farmers and consumers.
I was deeply impressed by Rohit’s work. He’s interested in sharing heritage seeds. Some of his corn varieties could double the harvests of farmers in Bali and Sumba whose crops currently yield a single small ear. Contact me if you’d like to get in touch with him.
The bridge to market is the crucial element in helping farmers to prosper. If readers are aware of similar projects taking place in Indonesia, I’d be very interested to learn about them.
By Ibu Kat
Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak
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Ibu Kat’s book of stories
Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult
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