Gurugram-based Deepak Gupta regularly gets his hands dirty harvesting vegetables and grains. It is quite a career switch for the 44-year-old owner of Organic Maati farm, who, until two years ago, was busy making spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations as a deputy general manager in corporate banking.

Genesis from banker to farmer: An XLRI alumnus (1996 batch), Gupta was working with ICICI Bank in Canada when his wife and he first started having organic food. Twelve years later, when they decided to move back to India in 2011 to be closer to his parents, they wanted to continue eating healthy. Gupta started sourcing food from organic producers.

“Initially, we wanted to increase the consumption of organic food and organic products for our family and friends. But then we realized that the farming community needed help to grow organic food," says Gupta. He travelled to villages in Haryana, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh, met farmers to find out why they were using chemicals, and understood supply-chain issues.

In 2012, he set up Organic Maati, a self-funded venture that now employs four full-time farmers to produce organic food on 42 acres of leased land in Haryana. It took him another four years, till April 2016, to hone a sustainable business model , quit his job and become a full-time “urban" farmer.

Doing the homework: He networked, taking part in exhibitions, interacting with other urban farmers, and meeting Subhash Palekar, an agriculturist and long-time proponent of natural farming. “I did not do any formal course in farming. But my farm visits taught me a lot. There is only one way to learn—get your hands dirty."

Modelling a business: Organic Maati depends on a farm rental system. For Rs60,000 a year, subscribers can rent a 1-acre plot. The fee includes the cost of electricity, seeds and farm labour, and the harvest is divided equally between the farm and the subscriber. Gupta sells his portion to B2B customers—cafés and restaurants which use organic products, such as Bueno Café, and organic vegetable retailer Sanesa Farms, both located in Gurugram. They now have 42 subscribers.

The new worklife: As a banker, Gupta’s responsibilities involved lending to large corporate organizations. His day would be filled with meetings and presentations. But he would be able to switch off from all this on weekends. “However, there are absolutely no weekends in farming. Rather, they are even more hectic as subscribers visit more often on weekends. During sowing or harvesting season, I work on the farm from 6am onwards," he says.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Any new initiative comes with challenges, and Gupta’s journey is no exception. Many of the early subscribers, he says, confused organic produce with exotic produce. “We had to create awareness that naturally produced food is not always beautiful; rather, it is more rustic and not visually appealing," explains Gupta.

The other side of the business—the farmers—also needed to be convinced about the viability of the business model. “We assured landless farmers that in this model they would not be held responsible for the produce—if it is a bad crop, no one is going to make them pay. We stayed away from production incentives, and instead give them a fixed salary, a place to stay and job security—so all they need to concentrate on is using their knowledge of farming," he adds.

Insights: “I knew from the beginning that it is a social enterprise. I cannot keep benchmarking it to my corporate salary. It is going to be a long process of value creation," says Gupta. He says knowledge of his resources, what he would need, and how much output he could expect, helped him calculate the optimal price for subscriptions—ensuring subscribers weren’t discouraged, and it didn’t become a loss-making endeavour. “I had to use my banking knowledge to create an economically sustainable model for what I believed in. It is not a romantic pursuit. I am also creating economic value here," he says.

Green Thumb is a series that aims to understand why people with corporate lives give up their jobs to become urban farmers.

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