Lahu Fale does not have to think twice about market availability, price and transportation when it comes to deciding which crops to grow. Now he and other farmers in Pune's Kolwan Valley can sell their produce in the neighbourhood for a reasonable price. It was not always so. Earlier, the farmers used to wait for prices to rise in faraway markets, and when their produce would begin to rot they would sell in distress.
This changed after Pune-based Gomukh Environmental Trust for Sustainable Development set up a fruits and vegetable processing and storage unit on the outskirts of Pune. "Usually, farmers transport their produce over long distances to markets. Sometimes it rots on the way; sometimes we do not get the right price,' says Dahibhate, 45, of Chale village. "Now we have an option of selling our produce at a good price to the facility in the neighbourhood.'
It all started in 1995 with the trust's watershed management programme in the 17 villages of Kolwan Valley of Mulshi block, along the river Walki. Before the watershed development work, the river used to remain dry for six months in a year, and the villagers faced a shortage of drinking water. Soil and water conservation reversed this. Water became available to the extent that farmers started growing water-intensive sugarcane on a large scale.
Sugarcane was the obvious choice because of a number of sugar factories in the region. "Initially, the farmers got a good price for sugarcane, but soon market forces started working,' says Vijay Paranjpye, chairperson of the trust. As more farmers shifted to sugarcane, productivity increased and prices went down.
To avoid this condition it was important to encourage farmers to diversify their crops and grow more vegetables and fruits. Providing market access and assuring the right price for their produce were the logical next steps, says Paranjpye. So the storage and processing facility was built to add value to their products and enable them to access a larger market.
With sugarcane production rising, the prices fell. So a fruit and vegetable processing unit was set up to encourage farmers to diversity their crops
The plant processes tomato to make puree, and mango and custard apple into pulp. Green peas and sweet corn are sold as frozen. They have started getting produce for processing from other areas as well, like strawberry from Mahabaleshwar. The processed produce is then marketed under the brand name Gomukh Frozen Food. "Traditionally, green pea was grown on a large scale here but with scarcity of water farmers stopped growing it. Now with watershed development programme and processing facility, they have begun growing green pea once again,' says Pramod Pokharkar of the Gomukh Environmental Trust.
In the absence of the facility, 80 per cent farmers would get lower prices for their produce, says Pokharkar. Now whatever the market price, farmers get a fixed price decided by a company formed by the trust and farmers. They are free to sell in the open market if they get a higher price.
The facility, run by a farmers' cooperative society, started production in 2004 and employs about 60 people, of whom 25 are women who do the sorting and packaging. At present, the holding of farmers
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