As the sun sets behind the cloud-headed Babdeo Ghat in Saswad taluka, about 40 km south of Pune, and the tinkling of a bell in a nearby hut ushers in the falling darkness, Marc Cremer (48) climbs into his jeep to head back to the farmhouse from his fields of lettuce, herbs and fruits.
He smiles and waves to local villagers — some of whom work on his farms — as the vehicle hurtles past water reservoirs and overhead tanks.
Cremer and his business partner Markus Volpers (48), both from Cologne in Germany, set up Green Tokri in Pune city and began growing salad vegetables at their farm in Saswad 18 months ago.
Cremer is one of a growing crop of farmers who are the reason why you get red lettuce at Matunga market, packets of fresh basil and thyme at Pali market in Bandra, ready-to-eat salads at supermarkets, broccoli and red pepper on your Pizza Hut favourites and crunchy greens in the day’s special at Subway.
A 200-acre farm in Talegaon (about 135 km south-east of Mumbai), for instance, supplies 30 tonnes of lettuce to McDonalds and 10 tonnes of lettuce to Subway every month.
Largely imported till a few years ago, and still called exotic, salad vegetables are now growing on Maharashtra’s hillsides. Not only are they changing the way we, in the cities, eat, but the way farmers farm.
The fragrance of farm-fresh herbs and growing lettuce heads, though, does not make one oblivious to disturbing things.
Labourers sit on their haunches as they wait for electricity to make the pumps return to life; fuel bills increase as cold storages run on generators; farmers fret as water levels fall in the dams.
Cremer’s service in Pune delivers salads to the doorsteps of the urban health-conscious. “The idea was to get rid of the middle man and go to the consumer,” says Cremer, who has a PhD in agriculture from Berlin.
Shivaji Bhegde (40) has no such pedigree, but he has been growing salad vegetables for seven years. He has seen demand rise and rise some more, thanks to the McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Subway outlets in Mumbai, Pune and cities like Goa and Kolkata.
“Some of the produce is sent by plane, some by train. It depends on how perishable they are,” says Bhegde.
The terrain, and the cool and dry climate in the hills around Pune, is one of the main reasons why a firm like Trikaya Agriculture grew roots in Talegaon.
“We also have farms in the Konkan region and in Ooty,” says Samar Gupta (46), owner of Trikaya. “We grow brussel sprouts at our Ooty farm, which is much cooler, at 7,000 feet”.
Set up 22 years ago by Samar’s father Ravi on a whim, the company now has a yield of 1 to 1.2 tonnes of lettuce a day from its 200 acres at Talegaon.
“But the lack of sufficient power is a big problem. We hire a group of 20 labourers for a day’s work and then there is no electricity for the entire day,” adds Satyawan Pawar, assistant to the company’s general manager, Manje Gowda.
Back at his farmhouse, where a generator ensures a warm tungsten glow from every corner, Cremer points to a wall of darkness in the villages beyond his balcony. “Look, not a speck of light,” he says.
And power is not the only trip-up. “We get enough rain here, even though we are in the rain shadow area,” says Cremer. “But all the water is allowed to run off. Why is the government not investing more in water management?”
Cremer has something else on his mind. He wants to find out how to make local residents — most of them retirees and sticklers for varan bhat (rice and pulses) — take a liking to vegetables they see as just a bunch of colourful leaves.