By encouraging consumers to participate more actively in the process of growing food, Spudnik Farms has been able to guarantee a market to their farmers. We speak to Sumeet Kaur, who founded Spudnik Farms.
Back in 2013, Sumeet Kaur, a tax lawyer, decided to become a full-time farmer out of an interest in learning more about where her food came from. She began by growing vegetables for her own consumption, until her supplies outstripped her needs, and friends and family started buying from her. As demand continued to rise slowly, Sumeet felt that partnering with smallholder farmers near where she lived might make sense to fulfill her growing requirements.
Today, Sumeet, the founder and CEO of Spudnik Farms, works with 24 farmers north of Bengaluru to supply fresh fruits and vegetables on a weekly subscription basis to homes across Bengaluru through a system of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is a partnership between farmers and consumers through which consumers pay an upfront subscription to a farm, translating to a share in the produce of the farm. The idea is to secure livelihoods for small and marginal farmers while also trying to encourage consumers to participate more actively in the process of growing food. Risks are shared, and so are the joys of successful harvests.
Excerpts from our conversation with Sumeet:
Tell us a few things you didn’t realize about agriculture until you started farming using chemical-free methods.
Agriculture has been a transformative experience. It has taught me valuable lessons in patience and persistence. I used to have very romanticised notions about farming before I actually started growing food. Natural farming methods helped me understand that agriculture need not always involve high-input costs or result in resource depletion, and that chasing high yields may not always be desirable. It is equally important to nourish soil, create diversity, and build climate-resilience.
I also now appreciate the importance of seed-saving and preservation of indigenous vegetables—not just for creating diversity and reducing input costs, but also for food autonomy and adapting to climate change. I have also come to realise that naati (local) vegetables tend to taste much better than typical hybrid varieties.
How and why did you shift from running your own farm to partnering with small-holder farmers?
When I first took up agriculture, it was almost as a hobby—something that I had the luxury of doing because of my socio-economic status and opportunities. For instance, I started agriculture on a piece of land that a friend’s father allowed me to use for no charge at all. However, by trying to grow and sell produce myself, I came to the conclusion that the food system in India was exploitative and broken.
It also brought me to the realisation that while it might be easy for me to take up agriculture with no substantial risk, there were close to a billion people in India for whom this was their only source of income. I came to the inevitable conclusion that I had to figure out a way for agriculture to be remunerative, not just for me personally, but for other smallholder farmers, and that this model had to be replicable. Having realised through personal experiences how unjust the current system of agricultural remuneration is, there was no real alternative but to attempt to build something more fair.
At Spudnik Farms, you follow a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. How has this been working for you?
I first considered Community-Supported Agriculure to address some of the challenges I faced as a farmer—I was unable to gauge the demand for produce, had difficulty in maintaining cash flows, and could not effectively sell my entire produce. As I experienced the benefits of shifting to the CSA model, I saw its potential to address similar problems faced by other farmers. Over the last two years, this model has allowed us to create a guaranteed market for farmers, and reduce wastage since production is linked to a predetermined demand.
For our subscribers, it ensures consistent access to good quality organic produce at affordable prices. Given how hectic urban lives have become, the CSA model also offers convenience to subscribers since they pay once a month, and are spared the hassle of weekly planning and ordering. Very importantly, it gives subscribers a sense of being active participants in the food system rather than be mere consumers.
How do you decide what goes in the subscription box?
It’s an iterative process, really. While we have a fair idea of what grows in our region, we also need to take into account what our customers would like to see in their boxes. Subscribers fill up a questionnaire that helps us understand what they would love to get in their boxes, and what they absolutely dislike. The former helps us plan production and grow more of the crops that customers tend to like and want, while the latter allows us to exclude specific produce that a customer may not like. Further, our production plans are made after considering the local agro-climatic conditions and related factors on each farm.
We’re also keen on reintroducing lesser-known native produce specific to the regions that they are grown in, and always try to include a few of these in every box as well.
One of your core principles is farm-to-fork traceability. What does traceability mean in the context of your work, and as consumers, why do you think this is something that we should care about?
It’s a warzone out there, with commercial farmers using chemical fertilizers and pesticides indiscriminately on their crops, hoping for a better yield. A lot of produce that we take for granted actually travels thousands of kilometers from across the globe to make it to our tables, and the carbon footprint of transporting these alone is staggering. In either case, the end consumer is left completely in the dark about what they’re eating, how or where it’s been grown, what went into producing it, or the environmental and socio-economic impact of their food choices.
We believe that the best way to make a climate-friendly food system and empower consumers to make responsible food choices is to provide information on who is growing food, why it is being grown, how it is being grown, who it is being grown for, and making sure it is distributed in the most efficient manner.
We’ve heard of individuals like Gowramma from you. Can you tell us how you met her, and how she contributes to the work you do?
Gowramma was the first farmer who showed faith, and decided to work with us. A national award-winning organic farmer, she is one of the most knowledgeable people I have come across in this field. She joined the Spudnik Network in June 2019 with an area of 0.25 acres out of her total land holding of one acre. Prior to this, she exclusively grew organic grapes, but could not earn much due to lack of marketing facilities and high input costs.
We conducted free soil tests for Gowramma’s land and held extensive discussions to understand her expectations and challenges. Based on this, we recommended crops, and provided her with on-field assistance in managing pests, diseases, and plant health. Spudnik Farms also assured Gowramma of a market, offered fair prices, and provided convenient farm-level pick up for her produce. As a result, she earned more profit in three months of cultivating with us than she did in the previous year. Encouraged by this, she expanded cultivation to her entire one-acre land holding, and today, Gowramma grows more than 10 crops on her land using natural and regenerative agricultural practices, and has seen a 25-fold increase in her annual income.
How did you make your way to the Kunbi community in Joida? What is the local landscape and community like?
We work with farmers from the Kunbi community in Joida, North Karnataka. The Kunbis are a traditionally forest-dwelling community that migrated from Goa about five centuries ago. Being situated in a reserved forest area, the Kunbis primarily rely on agriculture and forest produce for their livelihood. Due to lack of livelihood opportunities, the men migrate seasonally to the nearby states of Goa and Maharashtra to work as unskilled labour, where they function under poor work and living conditions, away from their families. The women do not earn.
My first trip to Joida was quite humbling because it opened my eyes to the bewildering variety of indigenous produce in the region. Joida is one of the most economically backward parts of Karnataka, although it is rich in biodiversity and natural resources. I also experienced the extraordinary generosity of the Kunbi community, and at the same time, witnessed them struggling with poverty. That’s when we started working with the community to create sustainable livelihood opportunities through agriculture.
How is Spudnik Farms shaping the way people eat?
Up until a few years ago, organic food was a luxury, and was scoffed at for being a rich people’s indulgence. Via Spudnik, consumers are able to feel the difference in the taste and quality of organic produce, and that itself is a big win for us. We’ve also reintroduced old heirloom varieties of regular veggies such as musku badane (chubby brinjal), sword beans, clove bean, karibaale and giddbaale varieties of banana, and kalapahaad mangoes that have slowly been replaced by high yield hybrids that compromise on flavour. This, combined with our range of native crops, tubers, and off-market produce makes Spudnik’s basket very unique. It’s our hope to convince most, if not all our subscribers, that organic, native and heirloom is the way to go, by showcasing the best produce of the land to them.
Any words of advice to people looking to switch over to a career in farming like you have done?
A lot of us city folks dream of owning a piece of land to farm, but the reality of agriculture can be quite different from the idea of it. So my first advice would be to think very deeply about the purpose for making the shift—whether it is to live off grid, create a personal weekend getaway, develop a community improvement project, for investment purposes, or for any other reason. Also, acquire some hands-on experience before taking the plunge and buying land. If you know of organisations that work with farmers within commuting distance of your home, try volunteering with them. Lastly, understand that good things take time—so be patient and persevere.