Pune-based Amrita Chaudhury, 44, of Offerings Farms left a steady job in the information technology industry in the US to start cultivating organic produce in India in 2008.
Today, the farm, spread over 16 acres in Somurdi village, around 45km from Pune, supplies 20 customers in Pune, Goa, Mumbai and Gurugram—including restaurants and retailers such as Godrej Nature’s Basket, Gourmet Delight, and Zama Organics.
While Chaudhury handles the production, her husband Sanmitra Pandharpur, 45, who was an engineer, takes care of the marketing. They first started farming on a small half-acre plot owned by the family, moving to Somurdi in 2010.
From IT to farming: An NIT (National Institute of Technology), Silchar graduate, Chaudhury completed her engineering in electronics and communication in 1996 and joined Infosys in Bengaluru, eventually moving to Dallas, US, to work for Fujitsu and Samsung. There, she volunteered with organizations sending aid to India for sustainable development projects, and this sparked her interest in sustainable organic farming. In 2002, she returned to India and was looking to buy land when she met her would-be husband. They thought alike, but the real push to take up organic farming full-time came when her brother suffered injuries in an accident in Bengaluru in 2006 and his nutritional care required healthy foods. "That is when we decided to focus on salad ingredients, dark-coloured leaves, microgreens and superfoods within the organic produce," says Chaudhury. The couple bought 8 acres in Somurdi in 2010 and has since taken another 8 acres on long-term lease. It took them four-five years to achieve financially stability.
Doing the homework: To prepare for the switch in professions, Chaudhury read books and visited farms owned by people she knew. Tending The Earth by Winin Pereira, and The One-Straw Revolution by Masonabu Sukuaka, were their “bibles".
“Along with this, we also read the writings of farmer and activist Bhaskar Save and met (the late) environmentalist Kisan Mehta, who guided us," she says. There were meetings with other farmers too, as well as rigorous on-ground research.
A model business plan: Though they had worked on some numbers, Chaudhury and Pandharpur did not have a fixed target in mind. They tried to understand the market, and cater to the prevalent demand. “There was not much aggressive marketing. We relied on word-of-mouth among friends and family. Our strategy is to keep ourselves very agile so we can quickly ramp up or down as per the demand in the market." They currently produce kale, beets and sweet potatoes, and are looking to market frozen and dried produce to a wider customer base.
The new worklife: While her work as a software engineer required Chaudhury to work in a controlled environment, the plunge into organic farming brought with it uncertainty. “Farming meant that we would rely on a lot of external factors like weather, wind, market forces—things that were not in our hands at all. This came as a culture shock to me," she says. In her corporate job, she was assured of a fixed sum of money in her account at the end of every month; as a farmer, she had to get used to customers ordering in bulk and clearing payments when it was convenient.
The good, the bad, and the ugly: Uncertain weather can be the greatest hurdle, but Chaudhury enjoys growing her own produce. But if the stock doesn’t sell, or is not up to the mark and has to be discarded, it does hit her hard.
The other side of the business: While working on your own farm can seem inviting and independent, it does come with downsides, like unforeseen market conditions. “With new research, new trends keep emerging, so while it does keep us on our toes, it also unnerves us at times. Fresh food is an evolving thing, we cannot decide in advance what people will demand, so it does throw us off a bit," she says.
Insights: Tilling the soil and growing your own food can be spiritually uplifting, says Chaudhury. “Working with the soil and nature makes you more mindful of everything around you—from seasons to the foods you eat. In a world where we are progressively losing touch with nature, farming helps us connect to our roots and appreciate the miracles in everyday life," she says.
According to Chaudhury, farming is extremely rewarding, and not just in a monetary sense, but it needs passion and a love for the land. It also requires “a full-time commitment to live the farming lifestyle as the uncertainties around the seasons, the pests and Mother Nature in general are far removed from anything corporate life can throw at you," she says.
Green Thumb is a series that aims to understand why people with corporate lives give up their jobs to become urban farmers.