Ever since I began this video series on the Miyawaki Model, many people have been raising certain doubts. The NRIs particularly are anxious to know whether on their return it would be possible to make a living out of agriculture, making use of the Miyawaki method, and whether they would be able to produce enough to sustain themselves. As a reply to this query, let me introduce a person I befriended recently.
During my childhood, as kids went to school and returned home, parents were not particularly attentive towards their comings and goings or towards raising them. It was simply assumed that children would go to school and return. Enquiries were made only during mealtimes or when they failed to turn up at the expected hours. There was no fuss whatsoever about seeing them off or asking them what they did at school and so on. In Kottayam, where I grew up, my house was at one end and my school at the other end of the town. Therefore, crossing the town was an inevitable part of my daily routine. On the way, I would see many sights and people – street magicians, roadside vendors, circus people, medicine sellers, snake charmers and so on. This meant half an hour of pure enjoyment. Maybe I picked up my spoken language from them as I was exposed more to their performances rather than to sophisticated language! The influence of those experiences lingers in me to this day. If I see anything unusual on the roadside as I travel, I’m invariably curious to find out the details. This episode is a result of it.
Recently, on my travel through Kottayam, on the Kidangoor route I saw a billboard which indicated that locally-manufactured jaggery was for sale. I stepped out and looked around. A few persons – five or eight of them – were involved in making jaggery out of sugarcane sourced from a plantation located across the road. This is what I call value-addition. That is, we get very little money from selling a product like sugarcane in the market. But if we convert it to jaggery, we get a better price.
Let me put it in another manner. Around 25-30 years back, when Jeffrey Sachs, a Right-leaning American economist, visited Kerala, I interviewed him for a magazine. What he mentioned during our conversation was that although Kerala was rich in raw materials and resources, we were not converting them into value-added products. For instance, we have been exporting black pepper for the past 2,000 years but if we export it in the form of Piperine, we will get better profit. Instead, we continue to export the produce in its raw form. His observation is indeed very true.
When we buy a mixer for Rs 2,000, the manufacturer may get only Rs 600. About 40 % of the cost will go to the retailer because he has to keep his shop open, pay the rent, give salary to his employees, pay for electricity, pay the tax, and so on. Now, even when the shops are closed due to lockdown, he has his expenses. Therefore he needs a regular income. That is why retailers demand 30-40 % as commission. Besides this, there is a national distributor who transports the product from the factory to the retailer. This will eat up 20-25 % of the cost. Then there are advertisement expenses. What remains after all these cuts – invariably a pittance – is what the manufacturer gets.
This is applicable to all products. That is the reason why farmers in Ooty are forced to sell the tomatoes they produce at 25 or 75 paise per kilo whereas the tomato ketchup we buy costs Rs 100 or Rs 150. So the value of tomato increases when it is converted to ketchup. It is a similar phenomenon that we observe at this place. We normally purchase jaggery at Rs 60 or 65 per kilo. But this gentleman sells high-quality and unadulterated jaggery, made right in front of our eyes, at Rs 150 per kilo. Simultaneously, he sells another variety of jaggery by adding dried ginger to it. That costs Rs 200 per kilo. Does he become a millionaire through this business? No. He suffered huge losses in his sugarcane farm during the last three floods. But he was able to overcome those losses because of this business. Let us listen to what he has to say.
Sir, did you start farming after retirement?
Yes. I had never done sugarcane farming earlier. But my father and my grandfather were traditional sugarcane farmers. So from childhood, I’ve known how sugarcane farming is done and how jaggery is made from sugarcane. There is a reason why I stepped into this business. The jaggery that is commonly available here is the Marayoor brand. But it is an adulterated variety. They add a chemical called sodium hydrogen sulphate to the jaggery to give it colour; caustic soda to make it tastier; and sugar to increase their profit. My small effort is to put an end to this practice. My aim is to make pure jaggery available to the public.
How much area is under sugarcane cultivation here?
Twenty-four acres. It’s five years since I started sugarcane farming and jaggery manufacture. People have been co-operating with me from the very beginning. We do it by the side of the highway. The reason is that we want passers-by to see our work, and check for themselves whether there is any adulteration involved in the process. We want to give people that opportunity. This is like an open-air theatre where anyone can see how we manufacture our jaggery. There is no entry pass.
Yes, I came in and explored just like that.
People can find out whether the jaggery is pure or not, and feel convinced of its quality before they buy it. We sell pure and tasty jaggery here.
The weighing is very accurate. In fact, if you ask for one kilo, you always get a little more in the packet, never less. Sir, you said you do sugarcane farming in 24 acres. With the floods – this being a low-lying area – didn’t you suffer losses?
Yes, water-logging is wreaking havoc on farming. I lost a lot of sugarcane and that caused considerable hardships. We had floods for three consecutive years. Therefore, I’m scaling down my farming. The losses are mounting. I have remained afloat only because of this value-added product that I sell.
Doesn’t sugarcane suffer diseases, like red rot?
I haven’t seen it here so far but heard that Tamil Nadu has reported cases of sugarcane rot.
Is this a native species?
No, I procured seeds from the Regional Agricultural Research Centre at Thiruvalla, and grew them here. There is a high-yielding variety named Madhuri. I cultivate it in my farm. True to its name, it produces very sweet jaggery. I have actually taken this 20-cent plot on a monthly rent of Rs 30,000, that is this jaggery manufacturing unit costs me Rs 1,000 per day.
How many workers do you employ?
There are 20 men to cut the sugarcane daily, and 20 others involved in processing it. I pay them Rs 1,000 per day.
How many days of work are you able to give these men every year on this farm?
Jaggery is produced all the 365 days of the year.
What about farming?
Every single day.
Are the sugarcane leaves and stem used for anything else? Cattle fodder, for instance? You use it to make fire, don’t you, sir?
I make other value-added products from it. The chemical name of sugarcane bagasse is molasses. When fermented, it becomes ethyl alcohol. And when colour is added to it, the product becomes Indian-made foreign liquor. The spirit that comes from Karnataka is extracted out of molasses taken from sugarcane plantations. Jaggery manufacture is a very simple process. The juice is extracted, using a press. The water content is removed, and that is the process you see here. What is left behind is jaggery. The thickening jaggery in this trough is stirred and removed using a spatula, and when it cools, it is rolled into balls by hand.
What you saw just now is how a value-added product is made from sugarcane. All of us have African bird’s eye chilly in our garden plots. We use some of them to make chammanthi, the rest is either eaten by crows, or gifted to friends. The cost of dried African bird’s eye chilly is Rs 2,000. Of course, the price will vary. It may be Rs 650 and may go higher. This product is sold outside Kerala because of its efficacy in treating blood pressure. Even tablets are made from African bird’s eye chilly. I don’t know if African bird’s eye chilly can be dried and made into fryums. But if you are able to convert African bird’s eye chilly into some edible product with a long shelf-life, you’ll get some profit.
In a similar manner, there is no point in merely having a Miyawaki-style forest. The Miyawaki technique helps us grow plants very quickly. That is, plants that would normally take seven or eight years to mature will reach that stage in two or three years in a Miyawaki forest. The income you generate from it depends on how you make use of its products. Bilimbi grows in profusion in our area. Generally, it remains unplucked on the trees and go waste. If it is converted into pickles, it will become useful product. I am told it is good for curing many illnesses. We can add African bird’s eye chilly to it, and make it better still.
The next issue is: how do we market these products? Recently, on my way home, I saw a man sitting in front of his house, selling snacks heaped inside seven or eight buckets. All of us like to have homemade food because it is not adulterated. When we prepare food or snacks at home, we do not add artificial colour or flavouring agents or chemical preservatives. They are pure. So we can make pure products and sell them directly. Online marketing can also be thought of in the future. That will make selling from home possible and easier. If we sell tapioca, it will fetch us only Rs 30 per kilo. But convert it into chips, and we earn more. I think tapioca chips come at Rs 80 per quarter kilo. Coconut oil and labour are what give it that extra value, and help us earn some profit. So we should think of these aspects when we choose such farming methods.