Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Birth of a new American farmer

(Last year, I wrote this story at the end of my six months of Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship program during which I worked at the Sun Sentinel newspaper in South Florida. The piece remains unpublished, but I thought it makes a good blog post. For, a year on, that trend is fast catching up with a lot of urban Americans, who are re-discovering their roots in the soil)
Grow nothing that you can’t eat.
Andre and Sharon Fletcher last year learned their first basic lesson in farming, when their ornamental fish business tanked with economy. “We switched to edible fish,” said the Jamaican-born couple in rural Homestead area of South Florida. “It worked.”
The couple, who took to fish farming barely three years ago without any background or knowledge, discovered Tilapias had a big market right in their neighborhoods. Soon the revenues picked up. There was no looking back.
Self-learning though was fraught with problems and losses.
Once, they over-medicated fish in the tank and saw it die one by one. “It was not a good sight,” said Andre, tall, well-built former U.S. Navy employee.
Until three years ago, Andre, 51, and Sharon, 46, were typical urban Americans. They knew only one thing about fish. “It tasted great.”
Then, as the economy nosedived his small construction business hit rock bottom. And she got laid off last year after working 21 years with a cruise line company.
The two-acre farm that also houses their home helped them overcome recession worries and pay off debts.
Today, Andre and Sharon can pretty much educate aspiring fish farmers. On their small fish farm – their primary occupation today – they are scripting a success story.
The Fletchers are South Florida’s emerging neo-farmers, part of a U.S.-wide movement that shows urban Americans – cutting across all ages, professions and strata – are falling back on the world’s oldest vocation: farming.
More than 300 new small farms started operation in Homestead between 2002 and 2007 agriculture census, said David Paynes, county extension director with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (UF-IFAS). “They come from diverse professional background, and are the first-time farmers,” he said.
More than 60 per cent of the 300-plus respondents in the first ever survey of small farms in Florida were first-generation farmers, said Bob Hochmuth, small farms coordinator with IFAS and someone who’s followed the sector for six years.
Take for instance, Hani Khouri, a 55-year-old Lebanese American. An MBA in international business with a rich professional experience, he switched to goat farming five years ago and is member of an organic farmers’ group.
Every weekend, Khouri could be seen at the Homestead farmers market selling goat-cheese. “I am,” he said, “also a certified organic cook.”
Take another, Darrin and Jodi Swank, a couple in its early forties, who took to farming six years ago and run a successful commercial operation in South Florida. “I never saw myself doing this,” said Jodi, who gave up her career as a travel consultant to join her husband’s dream of farming hydroponically – in a shade-net shade, without soil.
Tens of thousands of young and middle-aged urban Americans want to farm and spend rest of their lives in typical rural setting.
“We,” said Andre, “wanted to reconnect with our roots.”
A vast majority of people are going back to farms as a hobby or lifestyle, Hochmuth said. “But at least a third of them are in with a serious commitment.”
One of their major problems is training. With farm extension services in peril like that in India and university research being taken over by food corporate, the new farmers are finding it hard to self-train themselves in the vocation that demands some skills.
So in some states, like Iowa in mid-west, a new trend is unfolding: it’s called farm matchmaking. A young enthusiast is tied up with ageing traditional farmer in a way that the former helps the latter in farming in return for hands-on training.
This is farm matchmaking, a down payment on the future of rural America.
The idea is being tried as farmers are getting older and working longer: The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007; the number of farmers, younger than 25, dropped by a third.
With problems at both ends, the matchmaking program pairs the two generations. Aspiring young farmers then don’t have to go into deep debt to launch their farm careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s, or 70s.
Lawyers, factory workers, insurance adjusters, even accountants and dentists have applied to a special Iowa program that tries to link aspiring farmers with seasoned landowners looking to retire. The young aspirants, mostly in their 20s and 30s, all have their reasons: a love of the outdoors, a yearning for independence or fond memories of riding a tractor with a grandfather long ago. Recession too is playing a part.
Contrast this with Indian scenario: The past two decades have seen a massive exodus of farmers from agriculture as rural economy suffered a neglect. A biting agrarian crisis has pushed thousands of farmers to the brink of penury and even suicide.
Rural and agriculture employment rate in India, studies show, is decelerating. More than 50 per cent farmers, a National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) survey in 2006-07 showed, wanted to give up farming if they had an option.
The new small American farmer stands a wealthy paradox to India’s distraught small and marginal farmers. However, within the context of American farming, the policies are heavily against the small farm operations.
“Stiff regulatory climate drive us out of the game,” said Margie Pikarsky, who heads a loose cooperative of organic farmers in Homestead. “We want the government to change some of the regulatory climate.” Consumers too want that.
India is following American model – high-cost, high-energy intensive and mechanized farming. Here, things are beginning to reverse for a low-cost sustainable model.
“It’s happening one person at a time,” according to John Ikerd, author of ‘Sustainable Capitalism’ and Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri.
“Our industrial and corporate agriculture is energy-intensive, heavily subsidized and highly unsustainable,” said Ikerd, a leading expert. “This model is not to be emulated”.
Monopoly of seed, farms and food markets is fundamentally flawed, he said. “It will have to change.” The pace of change will be slow. “But new farmers, many of whom are women, will bring about this change over the next three to four decades,” Ikerd said.
America has a little over 2.2 million farms – a fraction of India’s farms and dependent population. About 125,000 farms in big acreages control 80 percent of sales value, while the remaining small and mid-size operations together account for 20 percent sales.
The 2007 Agriculture census found a 4 per cent rise in the number of farms in America, first time since the World War II. That’s because the definition of farms includes of any venture that sells produce worth $1000. The census shows a rise in the small backyard farm operations and concentration of large and corporate farms. Actually, more than 45,000 mid-sized family farms (an average 400 acres) perished between 2002 and 2007.
Yet new very, very small farms were born in the same period – in significant numbers. A good one third of them are women operators or owners.
The face of a new farmer – better educated, net-savvy, enterprising and innovative – is beginning to surface all over the United States to the extent that there is a general acknowledgement of this trend even at the federal level.
“Small farms are bouncing back,” said an emphatic Florida agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson at the inaugural Florida small farms and enterprises conference in August. “Small operations are going to importance once again.”
The new farms are building alliances – among themselves, directly with consumers or restaurants and hotels. They are demanding changes in regulatory climate.
“The current game is heavily lopsided in favour of big corporations – subsidies, market, seeds, inputs, government support, and processing rules, everything,” said Gabrielle Marewski, owner of a five-acre certified organic farm in South Florida. “Together we can seek some changes at local, state and federal level,” she said.
Policies, said Ikerd, will have to change eventually in favour of sustainable farming. “It has a bearing on the health of people,” he said. “We have to change.”
Ikerd said these new farms will “re-invigorate our local food system”. “In 2050, today’s time will seem like a historic period that witnessed historic processes.”
“You will see more of such farms popping up,” said Andre, who’s adding lobsters and a couple of other fish varieties to his product range. “People in his country now want to eat fresh food and not something that is transported from miles away.”
His customers drive miles to pick their weekly quota of fresh fish. Every month, Andre cleans his fish tanks to keep the fish happy, and growing.
The fish farm is really a chain of small and big circular tanks, with fresh water being pumped through the pipes round the clock. He’s switching to solar power to operate his farm to save on the energy costs. The U.S. government has recently introduced a program that supports small farms to make transition to renewable energy.
“All I do is to keep the fish alive and then they keep us alive,” said Andre, cleaning a fish tank he just emptied.” It’s a lot of work, he said, but also a lot of fun.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sowing the seeds of change via S-M-S

By Jaideep Hardikar

It is 8 am and on a cloudy day in June Sunita Bhajipale is anxiously awaiting a message on her cell phone -- quite unusual for a female farmer in village Jhilmili in Vidarbha’s Gondia district. As the ringtone on her handset buzzes, Mrs Bhajipale smiles, and checks the message. “Not a good time to start sowing yet.”

The s-m-s is today’s ‘weather advisory’ from Reuters Market light (RML), a professional content service for farmers from the Thomson Reuters group. “RML is my friend,” she says, as she informs her husband that it was not the right time for sowing. She encodes the message: 95% chance of rains, 2 mm rain. It might rain today, she explains, but not enough to commence sowing. “Let’s wait for two days.”

Among the progressive big farmers, the Bhajipales are pool in their entire family land – 100 acres all put together among several brothers and cousins – to introduce new cost-effective farming techniques and new crops – from grains to vegetables to fruits. RML, they say, has augmented their income.

Four text messages a day at an annual subscription of Rs 850, Mrs Bhajipale says, is not bad. “We get all information about weather, crop, commodity prices at different markets, and future projections.” In one year that the Bhajipales have subscribed to the RML, the daily text messages, she says, have helped jack up their profits by at least a lakh rupees. “Until last year, we sold our bananas to traders at Bhandara or Gondia at a price they quoted; now we show them RML message, if they quote less,” she says. “It helps us in making considered decisions,” she says. “Like: should we sell our produce today; or wait.”

Welcome to the ICT-enabled farming – where a complex web of activities are revolutionizing on the one hand, the way content is generated, tailor-made, and disseminated, and on the other, the way peasants use this information to do smart farming, and make considered choices: which crop to sow; when to sell the produce, and where to sell it. “Information,” Mrs Bhajipale says, “gives us an edge and confidence.”

RML – an idea born in Stanford, California, US; incubated in London; and tested in Vidarbha – is making a silent but deeper penetration among peasants in India’s vast rural landscape. From a couple of thousand subscribers who received it free during the test-run in 2007, RML today reaches 250,000 peasants in 13 states, signaling a staggering growth driven by greater rural consumer interest. Also factor this: A farmer who subscribes to RML on his cell-phone invariably shares the information with his fellow-villagers.

“What we do is manage the risks at one level and try to maximize farmers’ gains at another,” says RML vice president (operations) Ranjit Pawar. “We give them information and leave the decisions to them.”

RML’s USP: It’s affordable; easily accessible, and customized for the needs of an individual farmer. If you choose to get information on soybeans and cotton, two major globally-traded crops of Vidarbha, you’ll get it. At any stage, if you intend to change your choices, you could, by dialing a toll-free number.

“When the idea got coined, we said, we now have the device that makes it possible, workable,” the RML managing director, Amit Mehra, says. “It only had to be affordable and accessible for farmers.”

It is simple, and user-driven. All that you do is dial, 18002708090, a toll free number to enquire about RML. Buy a scratch card available at retail shops and Krishi Gramin Bank branches, and in a couple of simple steps activate the service. What makes RML spread fast is it can be accessed from any handset and mobile operator. No language barrier too; one can choose to get messages in regional language.

Conceived at Stanford in the Reuters Digital Vision program by Mans Olof-Oars, a Reuters’ employee, the idea got selected for the Reuters Innovation Program, and backed by funds.

When the idea originated, Mans had emerging markets in sight, Mehra says. India – where two out of every three new mobile subscribers came from rural India – emerged a natural choice.

For, the country’s mobile telephony was booming and economy was expanding at a rapid pace, RML Vice President (Operations) Ranjit Pawar says. Plus, India has 150 million farming households, largest in the world. To top it all, Bangalore is the hub of the Reuters global data operations that the project think tank thought would naturally aid the project in accessing technology and tackling the initial hiccups.

The Reuters innovation foundation formed a team that looked at the potential test field. Maharashtra, Vidarbha in particular, emerged as a choice, driven by several factors: a significant farming population; deeper rural penetration of mobile; marketable surplus of commodities; and internal assessment.

The first year (2006), Pawar says, went into a lot of field research and consumer feedback. “We engaged research agencies to know the top-most information needs of the Indian farmers,” he says.

The research assumptions were obvious: That there was an information asymmetry; farmers did not get timely crop and weather advisories; and the information about schemes and government programs was hardly easily accessible. When consumer surveys were analysed, the assumptions stood vindicated.

Why Mrs Bhajipale subscribed to the service when she first heard of it at a farmers’ convention in the district, is, as she puts it, “I needed this information.” Her need, in essence, is what creates the RML’s business opportunity. This one’s a new segment of customers; and new area for content generation.

In highly volatile global markets, getting accurate market intelligence and a picture of futures trend is crucial to farmers, who had no access to such specific information, says RML editorial head Sunil Tambe.

The RML subscribers benefited immensely last year, when markets were bearish, in contrast to the long term experience. “Our analysis showed that soybean prices would collapse later, because of the bumper crop in Agrentina and South Africa, when usually the soya prices start to climb at a later stage. The RML subscribers told us they sold the crop early and averted the losses. In cotton, our advisories suggested a rising trend in global prices at a later stage, so the farmers decided to take long position with cotton.”

“Content has evolved and been shaped by the subscribers over the time,” Tambe says. “For instance, we equip farmers with market intelligence, and prices of different markets which helps them understand broader current trends and future projections,” he says. “Now farmers growing soybeans in Vidarbha, want to know the plant delivery prices; meaning the procurement price at soya oil extraction plants. This information gives them an idea of the global trends: is the market going up; or down!

Based on the farmer-subscribers’ feedback, RML synthesized prototypes of text messages and sent it to some farmers in Maharashtra, particularly Vidarbha. “They liked what they saw”, Pawar says.

In 2007, the pilot product was launched.

Instead of providing the product on the java-enabled mobile hand-sets RML team chose to provide text services to the universally used handsets; the technological change was from applications based to text messaging, the latter mode making it easier for the farmers to receive and understand the content.

“We could have tested in two-three states,” Mehra says. “But we decided to test it first at a small scale in Maharashtra before scaling up the operations in 13 other states with farming families.”

Having validated that the product is replicable and full-proof now, the RML is ready to go beyond Indian shores. “We are gearing up to introduce the product in other countries of the developing world,” Mehra says. “That’s the reason why we scaled it up in India because it’s a model that works accurately.”

Accuracy of information and credibility, Mehra says, are the RML’s soul. “The fact that we are part of the broader Reuters network brings in the integration of best human resource, content, and technology.”

The value chain, Pawar says, is equally important. The Thomson Reuters does everything on its own: It sources the content; manages it; disseminates it on its own; looks after the billing and sales (it is its own pre-paid vouchers); and also handles customer care and support.

The whole of market intelligence is available for farmers, for whom it reads like a simple text message.

But it’s the synthesis of a complex set of fast-paced global activities: from collecting data, deciphering it and disseminating in a way easy to be read and understood even by illiterate peasant-subscribers.

Global market intelligence and information is sourced from various market reports and analyzed by experts. Granular information and intelligence is collected by market reporters posted at APMC markets.

It’s 2.30 pm, and a motley group of traders begin the auction of local and hybrid gram that has arrived at the grain auction yard number 7 in Nagpur’s sprawling 125-acre Kalamna market campus.

Standing attentively in one corner, Sarang Pimpale, 24, jots down the price at which the buyer closes his deal. “Rs 2160,” he notes, and moves on to the next auction site. At 4 pm, after three different auctions of gram and soybeans in a typical off-season when the arrivals are sluggish he texts a report on his cell.

The first year BA student is a farmer’s son, and RML’s market correspondent. “He’s our eyes and ear at local mandi,” says Shrinivas Pande, chief market reporter. Every day, between 11 am and 5 pm, Sarang taps on the prices at this market of 20 different commodities – from fruits to grains to vegetables.

After cross-checking his message, Sanrang shoots it to a system’s unique short code, after which it gets structured at the Reuters’ data-centre in Bangalore, before appearing in minutes on an internal prices application portal. Sitting in his Nagpur office, Pande surfs through the messages on his laptop, when he taps on Sarang’s entry. It reads: Soybean- Maximum price-2024, Minimum price-1951, Average price-1975, Arrival at Kalamna market-800 quintals, Wheat- Maximum price-1199, Minimum price-1176, No average (since only two auctions took place that particular day), Arrival-700 quintals…”

Pande clicks on “approved”. The message heads for the production desk and is ready for dissemination, within no time, among the subscribers as per their market and commodity preferences.

The content-spread is mind-boggling. It covers 250 crops; 1000 markets and 3000 weather locations.

Just look at the size of operations: 300 people in 13 states source information at granular levels; another 13 editors source information from global markets, and keep tab on global commodity trends, activities at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), and dozens of advisories issued by governments worldwide.

RML sources about 5500 data points, of which 680 are in Maharashtra. For instance, soybean prices at Nagpur market forms one data point. Local level market reporter is the primary source, and foundation of the Market Light product. The Reuters editorial network and its premium services are its backbone.

Weather forecast, Pawar says, is one of the top 4 information needs of a farmer.

Subscribers’ information consumption behavior is changing, Pande says. “Earlier,” he says, “They expected a message once in 3-4 days; now they want it few times a day, particularly in harvest season.” Some farmers call RML reporters any time, curious to know more about crop and market situation, and new government schemes that have been recently launched.

“It can play a big role in extension,” Gondia sub divisional agriculture officer Rajratan Kumbhare says. “I see a qualitative change in the way RML subscribers in our area farm, aided with information.”

RML is evoking curiosity among the researchers. The Oxford University is studying the impact of market light product on the farmers, who use it, to differentiate with those who don’t.

A research paper by ICRIER last year on the “Impact of Mobile phones on Agriculture Productivity” found “evidence that mobiles are being used in ways which contribute to productivity.”

The ICRIER researchers found the RML model – of some other non-commercial parallels – most suitable to the farmers given its customized nature and easy access. A number of subscribers reported that the RML advisories helped them avert potential losses by reacting quickly to weather and pest information, which in turn “generated positive economic benefits”.

Take for instance, Ravindra Lindal, a marginal farmer in Beed’s Rohtalgaon village. Two years since he subscribed to RML, Lindal has preserved every single advisory he received on his cell phone. Last season, he says, he could add Rs 64,000 to his profits, thanks to one particular RML market advisory.

“One s-m-s advisory suggested the soybean prices would drop in a week’s time, and I decided to sell my produce immediately,” he said. “I would not have sold it otherwise. Prices did drop. I was saved.”

Some farmers, like Sarjerao Sahebrao Kharwade, a five-acre rain-fed farmer in Beed’s Gevrai tehsil, are clubbing their age-old wisdom with RML service. “I’m able to sell my produce at an appropriate time due to this information,” he acknowledges. “I am persisting with it, since it’s giving me dividends.” No wonder, in his sleepy village, Kharwade’s now a rising star and one-stop guide to his fellow villagers.