Ever since Sikkim was declared fully organic in January 2016, local farmers say it is helping them increase their income, although connectivity for rapid transportation of farm produce continues to be a stumbling block.
By Athar Parvaiz*, Gangtok, Sikkim
Overlooked by Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak, the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim has achieved many distinctions in recent years, including that of being the cleanest state in India. The state has also earned praise for making its agriculture free of chemicals, achieving its target in January last year of becoming 100% organic after 13 years of sustained efforts.
Organic means more money
While most farmers and sellers of organic products say that Sikkim still lacks infrastructure like cold storage facilities and easy connectivity to markets in the country where the organic produce could fetch good profits, the benefits are undeniable.
We don't only think of the produce from our farms. We also think about what we give back to our farms to keep the soil healthy. Sonam Topgay Lepcha, farmer
"I am very happy to say that I am earning more after the organic market was established here," Mahananda Luitel of east Sikkim's Tumin Namrang village, who sells his products in the organic market of Gangtok, told VillageSquare.in.
According to Luitel, he and his fellow sellers at the organic market usually get 20% higher rates for organic tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, etc; in peak season, when the demand is high, organic products fetch them 40% more. "The organic vegetables fetch us a good amount of profit," Luite said.
Narayan Sharma, who sells processed organic products like buckwheat, turmeric and honey, says that he is getting a huge response from consumers. "When these products are in short supply, the customers even offer prices three times more than the usual price," Sharma said.
Twenty-eight-year-old Abhinandan Dhakal, who lives in Gangtok, has made small investments for four consecutive years apart from laying the foundations for a "unique organic agricultural product" — ground apple (or Peruvian ground apple) — in Sikkim, which he is all set to launch in the market on a large scale.
To capitalise on Sikkim's organic tag and to stand out from rest of the organic dealers, he said that he decided to focus on ground apple, a high-value product. "I taught farmers in east Sikkim how to grow ground apple and offered them market security for their products," Dhakal told VillageSquare.in.
No farmer in Sikkim, he said, had any idea that they could grow and sell ground apple. From the current production of 10 tonnes, he plans to raise his production up to 200 tonnes next year, with more farmers collaborating with him.
"We are very happy about its productivity as 1 kg of seed gives us 40-50 kg of ground apple," said Dharni Sharma, a 33-year-old farmer of Linkey in east Sikkim, adding that they earn ₹45 for one kilo of ground apple.
Farmers vouch for organic farming
"We have never ever used any chemical fertilisers in our farms," said Sonam Topgay Lepcha, a farmer in Dzongu, 70 km north of Sikkim's capital, Gangtok. "When we think of our agriculture, we don't only think of the produce from our farms. We also think about what we give back to our farms to keep the soil healthy. We harvest the crop-yield and give the residue back to our farms. This doesn't require us to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides."
Outside most of the houses, structures for making organic compost can be seen loaded with matter that turns into manure. "Using organic fertilisers has been our culture. We don't believe in artificial things," Pem Dorjee Lepcha, another farmer, told VillageSquare.in.
It is very difficult to deal in fresh produce especially when we are landlocked and have no rail or airport connectivity. Renzino Lepcha, COO, Mevedir
"Organic manure might not give you good yields, but it doesn't damage the soil over a period of time and also helps producing food which is good for human consumption," said Ringku Thapa, a farmer. "Due to the greed for good harvests, some farmers had resorted to the use chemical fertilisers some years back, but they soon gave it up, especially after the government adopted the policy of becoming fully organic and banned chemical fertilisers," Thapa said.
"And organic products also fetch good prices in the market, which fills the gap," said Passang Lhandup, who produces ginger and large cardamom.
According to S. Anbalagan, Executive Director of Sikkim Organic Mission (SOM), Sikkim has just over 76,000 hectares of agricultural land and around 66,000 certified organic farmers' families. "Our state doesn't have that much land area, which means we have to produce unique things which are of high value," Anbalagan told VillageSquare.in.
The Sikkim government, he said, has already identified a few high-value crops such as ginger, large cardamom, buckwheat and turmeric as unique organic products of Sikkim, which have a huge demand.
Lack of supply chain
Renzino Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, an agriculture company that provides services to Sikkim farmers said that transporting the produce to the markets is one of the major challenges for the state's farmers. "It is very difficult to deal in fresh produce especially when we are landlocked and have no rail or airport connectivity. The risk factor is quite high in the absence of proper facilities like cold storage chain and processing units and packaging material (everything comes from outside the state)," Lepcha said.
According to him, there are other challenges like pests and diseases of certain cash crops like ginger and large cardamom. "There are also issues regarding timely supply of organic pesticides and bio-fertilisers and irrigation problems in some areas," Lepcha said.
Proper facilities, Lepcha said—such as easy connectivity to the markets outside Sikkim, cold storage chain, and more effort towards developing high-value low-volume products like large cardamom—will give better livelihood opportunities to youth in Sikkim.
Anbalagan said that efforts are on to address most of the issues regarding infrastructure, such as establishing processing plants for value addition, creating cold-storage facilities everywhere in the state and getting the region better connected to the rest of India for speedy transportation of produce to markets.
Athar Parvaiz is a Srinagar-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.