He lost 5 loved ones to cancer. 17 years later, he helped 20,000 farmers in the Punjab go organic

IFor the past five years, farmer Sultan Singh from Tarsikka village in Punjab has been able to earn lakhs per year by growing organic turmeric. He started out farming on an acre of land and over the years has been able to expand to cover 11.5 acres.

Besides his hard work, he credits his success to Amritsar-based Gunbir Singh. “He motivated me to try organic farming and supported me through the process,” Sultan says.

Like him, at least 20,000 farmers have to thank Gunbir for their success in organic farming. Gunbir’s efforts have extended beyond the organic food movement to hundreds of schools, colleges, and patio gardeners.

However, he is not a farmer himself, but a businessman who helps others to switch to organic farming. So what motivated him to work to make vegetables free of toxins and benefit society as a whole?

Go organic, one acre at a time

Farmers market

In 1997, Gunbir faced personal loss.

“I had a fabric manufacturing industry at the time, and it was going well. However, I lost five people close to me to cancer. Two were family members, while three were business owners. I later learned that toxic chemicals used in food had a big role to play in their deaths, ”he says. The best India. “The huge financial and emotional loss led to my business closing in 2004, and I sold my ancestral home to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, reeling from the loss of his loved ones and his business, Gunbir decided to reach out to farmers to convince them to switch to organic farming to promote healthier lives. “It would have huge health benefits, and I thought if I could convince even 5% of them, the rest would follow,” he says.

A few months later, the then 54 years old launched the Dilbir Foundation on behalf of his father, Dilbir to advance this cause and began to raise awareness about the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers, explaining its toxic effects. “I have noticed that many farmers in Punjab devote a small part of their land to their own subsistence. They opt for minimal use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides because the vegetables are for personal consumption and do not require mass production, ”he says. who is 61 now.

Gunbir began to convince them to use organic methods for commercial farming as well. “I asked them to experiment with ecological and biological techniques on a 50 meter family plot, expanding it to one acre for additional marketable produce. If the results were satisfactory, they could be extended. Slowly, the farmers reaped results and began to understand the advantages and benefits of organic farming, ”he adds.

However, as more and more farmers began to increase their production, Gunbir often received comments indicating that many were struggling to sell. They had never ventured into organic vegetable territory, they were unable to know potential buyers. Food production also fell in the early years of the business. Thus, the farmers began to face price realization problems.

“To solve the problem, the foundation started organizing a weekly organic farmers market in 2016. The market provided a platform for farmers to sell their produce at an affordable price and cut out middlemen, thus ensuring direct profits. The event was also an opportunity to interact with customers to explain the benefits of food without chemicals, ”he says.

Happy buyer at organic farmer’s market.

Gunbir adds that customers have become confident in the products by regularly meeting with farmers and developing a relationship with them. “The farmers, in turn, developed their marketing skills in the process. They could understand customer behavior and change requests accordingly, ”he says.

Sultan says he met Gunbir on one of these occasions in 2016 and it changed his approach to farming. “I was drawn to the concept of organic farming and asked Gunbir for advice on it. I told him that I had rented farmland on a contract basis, ”he says.

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Sultan adds that he has started growing aloe vera and turmeric on part of the land for sale in the weekly market. “Initially, I sold raw products. But as the market grew, I started adding value to make aloe vera and turmeric powder products. Now I sell the products statewide, ”he says.

The organic farming movement then evolved further. “Customers shared their comments that although the vegetables were organic, grains and other edibles were still grown with chemicals. Therefore, in 2017, we launched The Earth Store in Amritsar, which offered organic products such as grains, pulses, oils, spices and other items under one roof. The second store was opened in Ludhiana in 2018, followed by Chandigarh in 2019. The products came from organic farmers in Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan and other parts of the country, ”says Gunbir.

Need an organic revolution

Gunbir shared the response of increased demand with organic farmers who until then were limited to growing a small variety of crops. “They were taught how to diversify from traditional wheat, rice and other thirst crops to grow more durable products like millets can meet a wider range of customer requirements, ”he says. The foundation also organized millet melas to educate farmers and buyers.

Gunbir additionally began to reach out to families, encouraging them to sell pickle, papad, cat masala, oils and other value-added home-made products for sale at weekly markets and melas.

Avatar Singh is another organic farmer who has benefited from Gunbir’s organization. He processes cookies and pickles from products grown on his farm. “I started using wheat, milk and other farm products to prepare products and sell them under the Mother’s Rasoi brand,” he says.

The Earth Store

The foundation expanded the organic food movement from farmers to schools and patio gardeners. “We have started running workshops for NCC students, as well as school and college students on tree planting, waste recycling and organic farming. Many patio gardeners grow organic produce at home after learning about its health benefits, ”he says.

Major Singh, a merchant navy professional, is one of those people who was impressed with Gunbir’s terraced garden. “I visited him in 2020 and was inspired after seeing a variety of chemicals free of chemicals grown on the patio with zero waste production. I also took a second trip with my father and daughter. We returned home, inspired to use all the space in and around the house to grow vegetables, ”he says.

The major says he grows okra, white squash, bitter gourd, bell pepper, brinjal and others in his terrace garden.

Regarding the challenges Gunbir has faced in his business, he says: “It is difficult to convince farmers to step out of their comfort zones of producing crops that are successful and to eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers. and pesticides. ”

“Farmers only switched to organic farming when they saw the benefits of embracing the changes with a secure market. The transition cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, but must follow a smooth transition, ”he adds.

Gunbir says the government should also come forward to support farmers in the cause. “Successive governments have failed to support and bring about change, as a result of which farmers feel skeptical and have lost confidence in experimenting with new ideas. They proved how they could contribute to the country during the Green Revolution. The next one could be an organic revolution, where they can repeat the same success with entrepreneurial lessons and government ownership, ”he says.

Edited by Divya Sethu

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