Gunbir Singh from Punjab runs Dilbir Foundation, which works with farmers across the state to promote organic cultivation
In the last five years, farmer Sultan Singh from Tarsikka village in Punjab has been able to earn lakhs per year by growing organic turmeric. He started with cultivation on a 1-acre land, and over the years, has been able to scale up to cover 11.5 acres.
Apart from his own hard work, he credits Amritsar-based Gunbir Singh for his success. “He motivated me to try organic cultivation and supported me through the entire process,” Sultan says.
Like him, at least 20,000 farmers have Gunbir to thank for their success in organic farming. Gunbir’s efforts have extended beyond the organic food movement to hundreds of schools, colleges, and terrace gardeners.
However, he is no farmer himself, but a businessman who helps others switch to growing via organic methods. So what motivated him to work towards making vegetables free of toxins and benefit the society at large?
Going organic, one acre at a time
In 1997, Gunbir faced a personal loss.
“I owned a fabric manufacturing industry at the time, and it was doing well. However, I lost five people close to me to cancer. Two were family members, while three others were company directors. I later learned that toxic chemicals used in food had a significant role to play in their deaths,” he tells The Better India. “The huge financial and emotional loss led to the closure of my business in 2004, and I sold my ancestral house to cope.”
Meanwhile, reeling from the loss of loved ones and his business, Gunbir decided to reach out to farmers to convince them to switch to organic farming to promote healthier living. “This would have tremendous health benefits, and I thought that if I managed to convince even 5 per cent of them, the rest would follow,” he says.
A few months later, the then 54-year-old launched the Dilbir Foundation in the name of his father, Dilbir to further this cause and began creating awareness about the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers, explaining its toxic effects. “I noticed that many farmers in Punjab dedicate a small portion of their land for self-sustenance. They opt for minimal use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides as the vegetable produce is for personal consumption and does not demand mass production,” he says, who is 61-year-0ld now.
Gunbir started convincing them to use organic methods for commercial farming as well. “I asked them to experiment with environmentally-friendly and organic techniques on a 50 yards family plot expanding it to an acre for extra marketable produce. If the results were satisfactory, they could expand. Slowly, the farmers reaped results and started understanding the benefits and advantages of organic farming,” he adds.
However, as more farmers began increasing production, a common feedback that Gunbir received was that many found it hard to sell. They had never ventured into the territory of organic vegetables, they were unable to ascertain potential buyers. Food production also dropped in the initial years of the business. Hence, farmers began facing issues with price realisation.
“To solve the problem, the foundation started organising a weekly organic farmers market in 2016. The market offered farmers a platform to sell their produce at an affordable price and eliminate middlemen, ensuring direct profits. The event was also an opportunity to interact with the customers to explain to them the benefits of chemical-free food,” he says.
Gunbir adds that customers became confident about the produce as they met farmers regularly and developed a relationship with them. “The farmers, in turn, developed their marketing skills in the process. They could understand customer behaviour and changing demands accordingly,” he says.
Sultan says he met Gunbir on one such occasion in 2016, and that it changed his approach towards agriculture. “I was attracted by the concept of organic farming and sought advice from Gunbir about it. I told him that I had leased some agriculture land on a contract basis,” he says.
Sultan adds that he started growing aloe vera and turmeric on a portion of land to sell in the weekly market. “Initially, I sold raw produce. But as the market grew, I started value-adding to make aloe vera products and turmeric powder. Now, I sell the products across the state,” he says.
The organic farming movement then evolved further. “Customers shared feedback that while the vegetables are organic, grains and other edibles were still being grown with chemicals. Hence, 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 came up in Ludhiana in 2018, followed by Chandigarh in 2019. The products were sourced from organic farmers from Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan and other parts of the country,” Gunbir says.
Need for an organic revolution
Gunbir shared the response of increased demand with the organic farmers who, till then, had been limiting themselves to growing a small variety of crops. “They were explained about how diversifying from traditional wheat, rice and other thirsty crops to grow more sustainable produce such as millets helps fulfil a wider range of customer requirements,” he says. The foundation also organised millet melas to create awareness among the farmers and buyers.
Gunbir further started reaching out to families, encouraging them to sell pickle, papad, chat masala, oils and other homemade value-added products to offer them in the weekly markets and melas.
Avatar Singh is another organic farmer who has benefited from Gunbir’s organisation. He processes biscuits and pickles from the produce grown on his farm. “I started using wheat, milk and other items from the farm to prepare products and sell them under the brand Mother’s Rasoi,” he says.
The foundation further extended the organic food movement from farmers to schools and terrace gardeners. “We started undertaking workshops for NCC students, as well as school and college students on tree plantation, waste recycling and organic farming. Many terrace gardeners are growing organic produce at home after learning its health benefits,” he says.
Major Singh, a Merchant Navy professional, is one such person who was impressed with Gunbir’s terrace garden. “I visited him in 2020 and was inspired after seeing a variety of chemical-free vegetables grown on the terrace with zero-waste generation. I also made 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.
Major says he grows okra, white gourd, bitter gourd, capsicum, brinjal and others in his terrace garden.
Of what challenges Gunbir faced in his endeavour, he says, “It is difficult to convince farmers to move out of their comfort zones of producing crops that give assured success and do away with the usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”
“The farmers switched to organic farming only when they saw value in adopting the changes along with an assured market. The transition cannot be a knee jerk reaction but should follow a smooth transition,” he adds.
Gunbir says the government should also come forward to support farmers in the cause. “The successive governments failed to support and bring in change, because of which farmers feel sceptical and have lost confidence in experimenting with new ideas. They have proven how they can contribute to the country during the Green Revolution. The next could be an organic revolution, where they can repeat the same success with some enterprising lessons and handholding from the government,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu