How the pandemic got a farmer thinking about bypassing the middleman
Ashok* is a farmer. He lives in a village which is about ten kilometers from Kunigal, a town around eighty kilometers north of Bangalore. As a teenager, he was interested in sports and that interest led him to physiotherapy. He did a course in physiotherapy in Mumbai and started working there. Even when he was working in Mumbai his thoughts were always centered around the farm back home. Ashok is a modernizer at heart and over the course of a few years, he convinced his father to modernize the farm. Adding cash crops like coconuts and areca nuts to the farm produce was his idea. When his father passed away in 2018 Ashok decided to move back home and take over the farm.
Ashok looked forward to 2020. There were three things that he wanted to accomplish in 2020. Make his farm more productive by setting up drip irrigation. Increase his income by getting into goat farming. And he also looked forward to visiting his physiotherapy batchmate in Gulmarg and spending some time there. He thought he could go to Gulmarg in August or September when farm work is light.
Ashok’s lockdown experience
Ashok had a good idea about what was happening in Wuhan. He is quite active on Twitter, and he followed a lot of discussions on COVID-19. But it seemed distant to him. Even amongst his friends who work in or frequent Bangalore, the sentiment was the same. It will never get to our village, they said. The lockdown was sudden and so was its impact. Procuring farm inputs became difficult. Fruits became a rarity in his village as most of them came from Bangalore. ASHA workers started frequenting his village advising people to mask up, sanitize, and maintain social distance. Nobody took them seriously. How can you wear a mask and work on a farm? How can you maintain clinical hygiene in a village when you are always working with soil and manure? How can you not gather around the water tank in the evenings to catch up with your buddies? It all seemed so impractical.
The first twenty days were chaotic. Nobody could work on their farms. There was no fuel for the tractors, access to fertilizers and pesticides was limited. The restrictions were slowly removed by the end of April as May and June is the sowing season. Ashok kept himself updated on all the developments through Twitter. He watched Netflix to take his mind off all that was happening around him. Unlike the older farmers, he did not have to visit the bank in Kunigal. He did all his financial transactions through Google Pay and YONO.
The first thing Ashok did post lockdown was to ride down to Mangalore on his Royal Enfield. He wanted to get away from the village for a while. He wanted to get out of his locked-down mindset. When he got back, he completed the coconut harvest. His revenues were considerably lower than what he had expected.
What troubled Ashok was that while his revenues were down – almost 30% – his expenses had increased. Hiring a tractor for an hour used to cost him Rs. 700/- before the lockdown. Now it cost Rs. 900/-. He did not feel like haggling with the tractor owners as he knew that they had also suffered a lot during the lockdown. His anger was directed at the middlemen. They were just taking advantage of the situation and making a quick buck by keeping procurement prices low. In his mind, the solution was to minimize the role of the middleman in his life. He blamed them for the farmer protests that had been happening up north. He felt that these middlemen had planned and executed the protests as the new farm laws would make them less powerful.
Life continued as usual in the village. Some people wore masks. Most did not. Nobody had been infected in the village and the thinking was that COVID had gone away. Soon it was time for the village temple festival. All the neighboring villagers were invited, and the festival was conducted with pomp and splendor. By February the ASHA workers were back, this time with a few doctors. The doctors explained why the elderly need to get vaccinated. They conducted camps and even campaigned door to door. Arguments broke out after a few people complained about fevers and headaches post-vaccination.
A new attitude
Ashok finally got down to setting up drip irrigation in November. He had to spend a lot of money, but he saw this as an investment. His plans of getting into goat farming had to be put off for some time. He realized that he could not spend any more right now. His revenue had come down and his expenses had gone up. This was the real problem. He spent a lot of time reading up on how he could modernize his farm further. He also read up on how he could get his produce directly to consumers.
The second wave hit him and his friends even harder. A lot of his friends lost their jobs. The politicians and the NGOs who frequented the village and distributed food packets did not come during the second wave. Cash transfers of Rs. 2000/- initiated by the government hardly compensated for the loss in income and the hike in prices of fuel, fertilizers, and tractor hiring charges. The one good thing about the second wave was that now people in the village started to take the pandemic seriously. They had seen news reports about oxygen and hospital bed shortages. Now they mostly stayed indoors and wore masks on the rare occasions when they stepped out.
A modern approach
Ashok is an optimist. He feels that there are immense opportunities in the field of agriculture. The path forward is clear to him. He has to modernize, and he has to convince his friends and family to modernize their farms. He plans to continue researching ways of increasing the productivity of his farm. He now plans to introduce mixed production – he will grow pumpkins and radishes and bananas too on his areca nut farm. He also plans to set up a direct-to-consumer channel along with his friends and cousins. He sees this as the only way to cut out the middleman. He wants to use technology to reach consumers directly, he wants to be present on all the online marketplaces. He is convinced that all of this will help him earn a lot more. And more importantly, cut out the middleman and take charge of his own destiny.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy