Before the pandemic drove things awry, people would throng the club patio at South City-1 in Gurugram during the early hours every Sunday. People would queue up in front of the closed gates of a marketplace, waiting to fill up their grocery bags with organic goodness.
Even in the freezing winters of Gurugram, when the market would start a bit later, there would be no dearth of eager customers lining up.
As soon as the clock struck 7 am and the gates opened, the market would be teeming with buyers and farmers — whose aim was to popularise clean and green food among consumers. Though the market is scheduled to remain open for three hours, the majority of the stalls are sold out within just an hour.
Since 2014, the Gurgaon Organic Farmers’ Market (GOFM) has been catering to the sustainable eaters of the city. The market is largely a citizen’s initiative, spearheaded by permaculture designer Manas Arvind, organic enthusiast Adarsh Kanwal and around eight other residents of Gurugram.
“We wanted to switch to a cleaner plant-based diet and came together to form a consortium. After nearly six months of brainstorming and planning, we finally launched GOFM and there has been no looking back since,” shares Manas Arvind, one of the earliest propounders of the marketspace.
Fostering Friendship with Farmers
Every Sunday, organic farmers from around Gurugram arrive at the market with their seasonal produce of vegetables, grains, fruits and homemade delicacies like pickles, chutneys, condiments and even baked goods. They put up stalls with their offerings and fix the rate charts on their own, without any intervention from the market organisers.
“The aim is to propagate the idea of treating a farmer as a friend, not simply a vendor. This attitude can impact the producer-consumer relation in the agricultural space of the country. That is why we offer full freedom to our farmer friends — be it in their products or prices. GOFM simply acts as a platform for them to showcase and sell their harvest,” clarifies Manas.
Another significant aspect of this organic market is the absence of the vacant consumerist culture. The farmers and customers together have fruited a beautiful relationship which prioritises the community above everything — a community dedicated to sustainability. In fact, customers have the opportunity to pay a visit to the farms and assist the cultivator in his work as well.
“Every single decision about the market is materialised only after discussing with all the proponents — from farmers to regular customers to volunteers. Such is our community sentiment,” reveals Kaushik, a weekend farmer associated with GOFM.
Vocal For Local
In around 5 acres of land, Prem Singh grows seasonal vegetables like ridge gourd, black-eyed peas, spinach, colocasia, okra, beetroot and also sugarcane, organically. Staying true to his objective — Healthy Kisan, Healthy Hindustan — Prem started practising organic farming to promote healthier eating habits among people. Eighteen months ago, he was selling his produce directly from the farm in the outskirts of Gurugram.
The sales were never enough. Only few people were aware of the ‘organic’ status of his vegetables and bought from him regularly.
“It was Brigadier Vishen, a regular at GOFM, who informed me about the existence of such an organic conclave. I have been a regular seller at the market ever since. It has been highly profitable for me,” shares Prem Singh, expressing his keen appreciation for GOFM to have created opportunities for many organic farmers like him.
Ideally, GOFM believes in the ‘go local’ motto, which is why they give preference to organic farmers from within a radius of 50 km around Gurugram. “We want to minimise environmental pollution due to transport from a distant location as well as the waste from packaging. This is why we predominantly try to steer clear of sourcing produce from other cities and towns. Even if we do allow such aggregators once in a while for certain exotic vegetables like zucchinis, avocados, bell peppers or fruits like kinnows and apples from Kashmir or Himachal, we make our customers aware of that so they buy at their own discretion,” informs Manas.
Around 50 local organic farmers like Prem Singh are associated with GOFM at present. Each Sunday, nearly 15-20 of them set up stalls, serving up to 500 customers. The turnover per table can range from anything between Rs 6000 to Rs 30,000, depending on the items on offer.
However, the organisers do not demand a single rupee of the farmers’ profits. The farmers do pay a table fee and a nominal volunteer expense fee. “Our work is completely voluntary,” says Manas, reiterating their emphasis creating a citizen’s movement of clean, healthy and conscious eating. The ground management, stall checking and verification of the farmers’ backgrounds are all done by volunteers.
Interestingly, the market is plant-based, which explains the absence of dairy, honey or poultry.
Supporting the Marginal Farmers
Kaushik Bandopadhyay, an organic farmer by passion, has been associated with GOFM since 2017. “I have seen Mandis in hill stations which sold produce locally, often organic, but always lamented the absence of a niche market for the same in our city. So, when I heard about GOFM from my friend, I was immediately stoked. However, getting a spot there was not so easy,” says Kaushik.
The selection process of farmers at GOFM involves a rigorous series of assessment tests, performed personally by GOFM volunteers. Kaushik’s farm also had to undergo the same. From extensive soil testing to product quality check, Kaushik was on-boarded at GOFM only after checking all the right boxes. It is not the same for each, as each case is different. “We ask for different credentials from different farmers/vendors, depending on their location, farm size, practices, produce, experience, certifications etc,” says Manas.
So, why not go by the organic certification granted by the government, since that would be way less cumbersome? Manas answers, “Gaining an official organic certification is no cakewalk. It is viable for farmers who want to export or sell in large quantities, either directly or through aggregators. At GOFM, while it is easier for us to enrol a certified farmer, we go the extra mile to verify uncertified ones to give them a fair opportunity. ”
Certified organic producers can sell at any corporate retail outlet across the country, which is not possible for these small-scale farmers. They often cannot sell their produce at the ‘organic’ market rate. Hence, GOFM vows to support these local cultivators and conducts its own evaluation of their crops. Their list of sellers includes farmers from all walks of life — from weekend hobbyists to certified organic growers to small farmers.
Go Local and Eat Greener
Since the spread of the pandemic early this year, the GOFM has gone online. Within a week from the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, their online portal was launched and the participating farmers were invited to upload details about their products.
The sales and product delivery are managed by the farmers themselves; GOFM online is simply providing a portal at a nominal convenience fee for them to sail through these trying times. “Thankfully, we are still able to supply the customers,” Prem Singh shares with a hint of gratitude in his voice.
“We do not have any interest in turning ourselves into a national brand,” says Manas. The stakeholders of GOFM wish that such local organic market models are replicated all over India, enabling more and more consumers to go local and eat greener.
As the next initiative with the GOFM community, Manas is now using permaculture methods to help create an organic community project, where residents of Gurgaon will be able to closely connect and collaborate with an organic farmer to not only receive self-monitored organic produce, but also learn a lot about, food, environment and health, in an exciting way.
Information about this group was originally published by Vikalp Sangam, here. March 2020 onwards, the COVID19 pandemic related crises have affected hundreds of millions of people in India. In such a situation, it is vital India finds alternative pathways of well-being, that help generate dignified livelihoods for all, and that help us move towards ecological sustainability. In a series of documents in various languages, Vikalp Sangam is presenting such examples, from which crucial lessons can be learnt and adapted to achieve similar results elsewhere. We show how each of the major problems faced during COVID19 has solutions, already demonstrated by communities, civil society, or government agencies somewhere in India. Other than English, you can find the document in Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, and Spanish.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)