Kadapa, India – Three years ago, Venkat Shobha Rani quit her job as a primary school teacher to help her husband tend their three-acre (1.2-hectare) farm, part of a growing number of rural folk in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh who are moving to organic farming.
“It’s a lot of labour, but organic farming is a lot better,” Shobha Rani told Al Jazeera in Dugganagaripalli, a village in Kadapa district, 450km (280 miles) south of Hyderabad.
Shobha is now one of several hundred Andhra Pradesh small farmers who are part of a government-run, community-managed natural farming program launched in 2015 as an alternative to burdening farmers with soaring fertilizer and chemical costs. The initiative is arguably unique in India.
Input costs for farmers are rising even as their incomes fall, pushing Andhra Pradesh, like many other Indian states, into a farm crisis. The project to help farmers go organic is seen as a crucial experiment, and other states are watching it closely.
The program has spread across the state, aiming to sign up one million farmers this year to practice either partially or fully organic farming.
In mid-August, Shobha enrolled with a state agency to supply organic Bengal gram (chickpeas) again to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam temple, dedicated to her favorite deity, Lord Venkateswara, also known as Vishnu.
Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), one of the country’s richest temples, needs a steady supply of chickpea flour for its laddus, the round sweets produced in the temple’s huge kitchen.
The temple makes and sells tens of thousands of laddus to pilgrims and devotees each day, as they are considered a vessel for Lord Venkateswara’s blessings. Other inputs include ghee, cashews, raisins, cardamom and jaggery. Most of these, too, are now sourced locally from organic farmers.
India’s main farming season is at its peak now. Part of Shobha’s farm is flush with cotton crops. The chickpeas she planted on the adjoining plot in late October will be harvested early next year.
Laddus going organic
Across the state, new organic farmers like Shobha are being tapped to supply their crops, including chickpeas and rice, for TTD, in what’s being hailed as an “extraordinary decision” of the temple trust.
The temple, which receives 60,000 to 70,000 devotees every day, decided to go fully organic in May, inspired by a devotee’s donation of chemical-free rice to the temple in 2021, Jawahar Reddy, the temple’s former executive officer who made the decision, told Al Jazeera.
“If every temple uses organic produce, it will encourage and incentivize farmers to adopt sustainable practices,” he said.
The temple then launched its pilot project last year when it sourced 1,300 tonnes of organic chickpeas from farmers like Shobha. That’s less than a tenth of the chickpeas it uses in a year.
Last year, Shobha sold 2,500kgs for the temple’s pilot run for an at least 10 percent premium over the minimum government-set price.
To enable that switch going forward, the TTD struck an agreement with a state-run not-for-profit organization, the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS, or the Organization for Farmers’ Empowerment), which oversees the natural farming project.
Under this, RySS will supply 12 organically grown commodities – including rice, jaggery, and cardamom – from these farmers in return for the TTD supplying the farmers with cattle from its cow shelters so their dung can be used as fertiliser.
Eleven more temples in Andhra Pradesh have followed in its footsteps. Together, they have placed an order for 25,000 tonnes of certified organic produce for the 2022-2023 farming season. The decision, state officials say, has given a big boost to Andhra Pradesh’s organic farming campaign.
“Our role is to identify, train and hand-hold the farmers who will supply organic produce,” Thallam Vijay Kumar, executive vice chairman of RySS, told Al Jazeera. “It opens up huge possibilities on the one hand and creates an assured market on the other. It’s an extraordinary decision that’ll benefit our farmers.”
As many as 25,000 farmers will be recruited to meet this demand by the end of this year, Kumar said. For the pilot last year, 430 farmers supplied 1,300 tonnes of organic chickpeas to the temple, earning 10,000 rupees ($121) per tonne on average, Kumar said.
Only 1 percent of the randomly tested samples were rejected due to pesticide residues.
Critics, however, point to the contradiction of newly set up state-run centers continuing to pitch chemical inputs at each of the 10,000 villages where RySS is trying to wean farmers away from conventional farming.
‘A proud moment for us’
The RySS will closely monitor the farming operations of the enrolled farmers from sowing to harvest.
But it faces a challenge in procuring commodities that are harvested at different times, processing them from specific millers, monitoring storage and quality, and maintaining the supply year-round.
To help with that, AP-Markfed, the state marketing federation, came in to take care of procurement, payments, storage, milling and processing, and transportation.
During the pilot run, the arrangement worked to the benefit of both farmers and TTD.
“With our unique end-to-end digital solution, we have smoothened the entire process,” Markfed managing director PS Pradyumna told Al Jazeera. “We pay farmers up front after certification [a week-long process]; the TTD reimburses us.”
In Shobha Rani’s village, 20 organic farmers have committed to supplying Bengal gram for the temple, according to the RySS. Together, they will produce about 40 tonnes.
In the neighboring village of Gollalaguduru, Umadevi and her husband, Y Sambasiva Reddy, have just enrolled in the programme. They’re among 51 households in the village to turn organic.
“It’s a proud moment for us,” they said about supplying farm produce to the deity they so revere.
Meanwhile, Shobha is excited, for several reasons.
She will get better returns for her organic chickpeas and the money will be in her bank account within days. But that apart, her produce will go into the making of the laddu offering to the deity – and be relished by devotees.