As India struggles to deal with stagnation in its crucial agricultural sector, small-scale organic farming initiatives near the capital are providing clues on how to reap healthy profits from the land.
Many farmers in India, where more than 70 percent of the people depend on the land, eke out a living -- or else fall steadily into debt -- trying to grow water, fertiliser and pesticide-heavy crops on an acre or two of land.
AdvertisementGrowth has clocked in at a mere two percent -- far behind the wider figure of nine percent -- leading the government to wager six billion dollars in a push for large-scale, industrial farms.
'Small and marginal farms have become an unviable proposition,' said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month, announcing the four-year investment in farm technology and infrastructure.
'Till we make farming as a whole viable at this scale, it would be virtually impossible to reduce rural poverty and distress,' he said.
But around New Delhi, free-range and organic goods from newcomers to farming are showing that money can be made by growing specialty products that consumers are willing to pay more for.
At the French Farm in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi known mainly for its call centres, Roger Langbour raises thousands of free-range Peking and Muscovy ducks on feed that is free of pesticide and antibiotics.
On an early morning visit, white ducks sat placidly on the ground in a large enclosure with wire fencing. Elsewhere turkeys and even a small number of quail and pheasants strutted and pecked at the ground.
'People said 'you are crazy, no one will buy your ducks',' said Langbour, who started the three-acre (1.2-hectare) farm 14 years ago after a career in the French air force, which sent him to India on his last post.
'But I'm the one who has opened the duck market in India. In '91, 92, there were no ducks on the table here.'
He now also raises pigs, and sells his products to five-star hotels, expatriates and wealthy Indians, garnering strong weekly sales worth around 2,500 dollars.
-- Agriculture sector will be 'the next big thing' --
Another more recent start-up, Heritage Health Food, delivers boxed organic food grown on 80 acres of leased land.
'Agriculture is the sector that's going to be the next big thing. It's an unorganised sector so there's a lot of opportunity,' said Indira Khosla, a co-founder of the company.
The two-year-old firm makes 200 to 300 deliveries a week, priced at between 200 and 400 rupees (five to 10 dollars) depending on weight, and Khosla expects to start turning a profit by next year.
'Recent studies have shown that if you want to achieve growth, it can be through high-value crops and not though cereals,' said Surinder Sud, agriculture editor for the Business Standard daily.
'High-value crops include fruits, vegetables, milk, poultry products and fish.'
An Indian Council for Agricultural Research study showed that the two percent agricultural growth rate masked a six percent growth rate in fruits and vegetables, Sud said.
Even so, India, the world's second largest wheat producer, may be reluctant to encourage its farmers to move away from growing staples like rice and wheat.
As incomes and food consumption have gone up, wheat reserves fell last year and the country was forced to import the commodity for the first time in six years.
But Sud said that with huge foreign reserves thanks to 15 years of a booming economy that is now growing at more than nine percent per year, food security can be managed.
'The government can assure it through imports -- that's not a problem anymore,' said Sud. 'And by growing high-value crops the farmer would have money to purchase foods.'
-- A strategy for healthy food and healthy growth --
Indian organic farmers can look abroad too, an export promoter said.
'Organic exports are growing by 100 percent a year,' said S. Dave, of the country's agricultural export council APEDA.
'Many people are still going in for traditional farming, which is mostly organic,' he said, explaining that small farmers in states where pesticide use is not widespread could easily stay green.
Four million hectares (9.8 million acres) of land are now devoted to certified organic farming for export, Dave said, including of mangoes, spices and nuts.
The council has developed standards for organic exports, and mandatory domestic standards are in the works. This will make it easier and cheaper for farmers to get the kind of accreditation that is recognised abroad.
But for now, the impetus for organic agriculture is coming not from small farmers in remote areas far from markets, but from city-based businesses and activists.
In New Delhi, the Navdanya outlets started by environmentalist Vandana Shiva source organic oils and lentils from small farmers.
And one of the country's best known brands, FabIndia, which began four decades ago selling clothes that drew on craft traditions, has branched into organic spices, teas and granola.