When the nationwide lockdown was imposed, Anne Mary Verghese, a banking consultant who lives in Koramangala, Bengaluru could sense the panic in her neighbours, especially regarding fresh produce.
While it is possible to store groceries for a month or longer, one cannot do the same with vegetables and fruits.
But Verghese was spared from the panic within a short while, thanks to her diligent produce supplier—Spudnik Farms.
Sumeet Kaur, the founder of the organic farm-to-table venture, reassured her customers across Bengaluru that Spudnik Farms would be delivering their vegetables and fruits diligently even through the lockdown. And she has kept her promise, thanks to her clever thinking and a dedicated team, at a time when even the big grocery chains have had to halt their deliveries.
Quitting her job at the peak of success
So how exactly is Spudnik Farms managing the impossible amid such a crisis? To understand clearly, The Better India got in touch with Sumeet, a lawyer-turned-agriculturist.
“I worked as a tax consultant advocate with a leading firm for seven years. By 30, I was at a formidable position in my career with a considerable bank balance and comfort. But something was missing. I had access to the best kind of privilege, but I was wondering if this was all that is there to my life,” shares Sumeet.
Plagued by second thoughts, quit her cushy job in September 2012, without knowing what she would do next, and turned to her one great passion—gardening.
“Agriculture was an integral part of my life. It used to be the ancestral vocation for my family, back in Punjab, and although I grew up in Delhi, every summer, my family would head to the village farm in Mullapur near Ludhiana. My parents also took me to apiaries and apple orchards in the Himachal regularly. All this knowledge was of immense help when I set up my own kitchen garden,” shares Sumeet.
Then, an idea struck her suddenly.
Dabbling with the idea of farming
In 2013, she decided to give agriculture a shot. The challenges were aplenty, starting with the arduous work on the field. But Sumeet was ready to brave it all. “My biggest blessing was the unfailing support from my family, who never judged or questioned my unusual choice.”
A friend’s father heard about Sumeet’s decision and offered her his vacant 1-acre plot near Hoskote, where she began to grow vegetables using organic methods. Aside from the standard tomato, okra, brinjal, radish etc., she experimented with unique vegetables like baby brinjal, exotic variants of tomato, and non-native leafy greens.
“For example, recently, I grew a leafy vegetable mallow once, which is an unknown plant, but rumoured to be a medicinal powerhouse,” informs Sumeet.
Soon, there came a time where she was growing more than her family needed, and this prompted her to reach out to friends, relatives and neighbours for selling the excess.
People were intrigued by the unusual vegetables she grew, while also noticing that the freshness, quality and taste were top-notch.
Gradually, Sumeet’s farm developed a steady fan base of its own. And this is how Spudnik Farms was born.
“People think the name is a take on the famous scene from Friends (the TV series)” chuckles Sumeet. “But, it was a curious coincidence. I wanted to come up with a quirky name for the farm, so included the ‘Spud’ bit, which means potato. Both my husband and I are fascinated by space science, so we did some wordplay and settled on ‘Spudnik,’ a twist on the famous Russian satellite Sputnik.”
The farm was officially registered only recently, but Sumeet has been serving hundreds of customers across the city for more than a year now. Upscaling posed a bit of a challenge for her with the demand-supply management, but she overcame the hurdle with elan.
Weekly baskets:a unique subscription model
Initially, she had around 25 customers within her own area, and would personally deliver the produce. At the same time, she was looking after the farm entirely on her own, while her husband tended to a small apiary they managed inside the farm.
“It was stressful. But the heartwarming anecdotes from my customers kept me going. People would tell me how their children, who were fussy eaters, had started eating greens, thanks to the unique Spudnik veggies. I was desperate to expand the endeavour and help more people eat fresh and healthy.”
To make the venture financially viable, Sumeet started the subscription model, which offers three types of assorted baskets that are delivered at the customer’s doorstep on a fixed day of the week. Depending on the strength of a family, customers can choose to order the large seasonal basket, the smaller family basket and the mixed fruits and veggies basket for people staying alone. The subscription is maintained for a month.
Empowering marginal farmers
As the business grew, Spudnik Farms roped in small and marginal farmers from Bengaluru rural, Chikaballapur, Chintamani and Mallur.
Just before the COVID-19 crisis started, they had also collaborated with a group of underprivileged tribal farmers from Dandeli.
At present, the farm is involved with around 15 farmers who have been trained and instructed to grow the organic crops according to the demand among Sumeet’s customers. Some of the common fruits and vegetables which Spudnik’s farmers do not grow in bulk are also sourced from government-affiliated Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs).
The subscription model ensures that there is no leftover production of a particular crop leading to wastage, or insufficient production of another high-demand vegetable.
“Partnering with Spudnik has helped my farmers tap the urban consumer base for their organic products. Besides, we also provide them with technical guidance or agriculture, plant disease management, organic pest control etc. Most of them had been practising organic farming diligently for decades even before the concept became popular in India,” shares Sumeet.
Happy customers, happier farmers
“Whatever happens, I know my veggies will come to me every week around the same time. Even during this lockdown, Sumeet has worked twice as hard, twice as cleverly to ensure the vegetables reach us,” shares Verghese, a banking consultant.
Her favourite part about Spudnik Farms is that they rejig and customise the basket every month, carefully catering to the likes and dislikes of her joint family.
“Sumeet also shares with us a wide variety of traditional and western recipes of the unique vegetables that she sends. Some of these vegetables are lost varieties from ancient times while others are Western herbs for salads or stir fry,” Verghese adds.
Powering through the lockdown
Despite being a small enterprise, Sumeet has managed the impossible during the lockdown through the sheer presence of mind. On 24th March morning, when their truck was stopped on the way to the farm pickup, she wasted no time before raising the issue to the highest forums.
Through Twitter and other social media platforms, she appealed to the Bengaluru Police to allow her company to function as essential services. She even headed to the Commissioner’s Office to ensure this.
She also acknowledges the hard work by her team of nine employees, who rose to the occasion and took all measures to minimise customer complaints. Sumeet herself accompanied the delivery agents to the rural farms, where she assured the farmers of continued service.
“When one of our women farmers heard about the dire shortage of supplies in the city, she reassured me that she would continue sending the staples for her customers from her stock at home,” admits Sumeet.
Even before the lockdown was imposed, Sumeet had already maintained all necessary sanitary precautions like masks, gloves, sanitisers and regular disinfectant treatment of the products. Her delivery executives had been practising contactless delivery from the beginning of March.
She believes that was another reason they could sustain through the lockdown without any jitters.
Through efficient management of her unique farm-to-table endeavour, Sumeet can inspire many about being the perfect entrepreneur—one who can sail through any crisis with unhindered support from everyone involved.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)