Growing awareness about organic farming is leading farmers in good numbers in Kerala to adopt to the new way, with the produce commanding a premium in the domestic and export markets.
Organic farming shuns the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, and it makes economic sense too.
According to Indocert, a body accredited by APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) for certifying organic production, 5,175 farmers in Kerala have won the certification.
The organisation began giving certification in Kerala in 2002. While it certified 155 farmers last year, 144 certificates have been issued this year.
"It is the premium price for organic produce that attracts farmers to organic cultivation. To pursue organic farming, farmers are expected to make an integrated approach for all farming activities, from seed to the produce - using only manure from organic sources, bio-fertiliser and bio-pesticides," says Mathew Sebastian, executive director of Indocert, based at Aluva near Kochi.
"They should start practising mixed farming - rearing livestock for organic manure, as procuring farm yard manure from outside won't be cost effective," Sebastian told IANS.
The campaign by farmers' groups also played a role in spreading awareness and promoting the idea of organic farming.
"We actively worked towards popularising organic farming as it will ensure good health and well-being of the environment. It will also help farmers get a better price for their produce," said Fr. Antony Kozhuvanal, national general secretary of Infam (Indian Farmers' Movement), an organisation backed by the Catholic Church.
Infam also helps farmers export organic farm produce. It runs Organic Wayanad, a project in Wayanad district whose sole aim is to promote organic farming.
According to K.M. George, coordinator of Organic Wayanad, the project includes about 1,500 farmers who are into organic farming. They manage to export most of their produce.
Organic Wayanad, along with other certified organic farmers from across India, has floated the Indian Organic Farmers Producer Company Ltd to procure orders for export.
"Organic farmers are getting about 30 percent more for their produce compared to other farmers. When the pepper prices touched Rs.145 a kg in the local market, we could get our farmers Rs.165. They also saved on transport costs as we collected the produce at the farm. We follow this system as we have to ensure that what we collect is indeed an organic product," says George.
Organic vegetables are now commanding maximum demand in the domestic and export market. "For vegetables you may even get 50 percent premium in the domestic market itself," he says.
However, things are not so rosy for organic rice producers who have tried selling their produce locally.
"The public is not sufficiently aware about organic products and the market remains underdeveloped, making the marketing of organic rice difficult," says Giridharan, manager of SHG Shoppe, a marketing agency under the Gandhi Smaraka Grama Seva Kendram, an NGO in Alappuzha district.
SHG Shoppe works as a marketing agency for self-help groups in Kuttanad, known as the rice bowl of Kerala.
"If the produce can fetch Rs.30 a kg, we'll have a decent profit. But we find it hard to attract such a rate... Rs.25 per kg just breaks even. Our next attempt is to have a tie-up with retail chains to offer our produce to a larger clientele," Giridharan explains.
"In the next season we will bring about 100 acres under organic cultivation. We also plan to grow vegetables. Then SHG Shoppe may have to enter the export market to sell the produce," he adds.