Driving down the link road connecting Verka village with Fatehpur Shukarchak, Golden Grain Inc, a food processing unit spread over half an acre, is hardly noticeable. But the unit is making waves much beyond Punjab, and beyond India’s shores, selling the favourite Punjabi delicacy — sarson da saag — made of mustard plant leaves!
It helps that the raw material is not too far, and is usually bought from eager farmers at rates higher than even the retail market prices. The processing, however, is not that straightforward if one goes by how busy the owner, Jagmohan Singh, 59, remains. On his mobile phone, he is constantly talking to farmers mostly in the adjoining Gurdaspur district, who inform him that plucking of the ‘sarson’ (Hindi) or ‘saron’ (Local Punjabi dialect) has commenced. They want to know when his tractor-trolley would be there to pick up the leaves, which would be processed into ‘saag’ at his unit before being shipped in cans to Dubai, England and even Canada and the US.
“I was keen to make available the traditional Punjabi food to our families residing abroad so that the young generation takes a liking to it. Saag, paalak (spinach) and methi (fenugreek) are of high nutritional value, and I am exporting as well as selling locally,” he says.
He runs his business on contacts, he says. “I have a verbal contract with around 30 farmers of villages in the Batala area growing mustard. All of them are small or marginal farmers with less than five acres.”
Jagmohan himself too grows mustard on his four-acre plot at nearby Makhanwindi village, but it is just not sufficient for his unit. In fact, he mostly uses the land for conducting trials on new varieties of mustard, fenugreek and spinach, and then recommends the varieties to the farmers who supply. Among the experiments is a variety he has got from the Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology in Hisar. “This variety has higher oil content and, when processed, that helps in making the saag tastier.”
WHY IT’S LUCRATIVE
The average yield of the Hisar variety is 80 quintals per acre, while the local Punjab varieties give a yield of 50 quintals an acre after two pluckings. The rate of saag leaves fluctuates in the Amritsar market, so, if the rate in the retail market is Rs 7 per kg on an average, from an acre the farmer gets an income of Rs 56,000. But, if Golden Grain is paying Rs 2 more, the farmer gets Rs 72,000 from an acre.
On the other hand, wheat if sold at the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,450 per quintal, fetches around Rs 30,000 an acre, if the yield is 21 quintals an acre.
The profits are more as the input cost is much less than that in wheat, which too is a winter crop. Wheat input cost is around Rs 13,000 per acre, including the cost of using a combine harvester.
However, in the case of mustard, the foundation seed of the vegetable was prepared by Jagmohan on his four-acre farm and supplied to farmers who work with him, free of cost. They were advised to keep a portion of the mustard for preparing the seed for the next season after two pluckings.
In accordance with Jagmohan’s instructions, no chemical sprays or chemical fertilisers are used by the farmers. Another benefit for farmers is that it is a 42-day crop while wheat takes almost five months. This helps farmers to take another winter crop or even sow vegetables which they can harvest before March or April. Yet another advantage is that after having undertaken the required number of pluckings the standing green matter can be ploughed into the fields, a valuable source of green manure.
Jagmohan also encourages the farmers to sow fenugreek and spinach and he purchases these for processing at the market rate, as also vegetables. He also makes sauce from chilli bought the same way.
The farmers also save upon the transportation cost as Jagmohan sends his tractor-trolleys. “As they are all small and marginal farmers, I do not wish to burden them; and they too have always been loyal to me and abide by my instructions. Some sow saag on one acre, while one farmer, Kuldip Singh of Saraspur, has sown it on six acres. They also save on labour as in most cases the plucking is done by the women of the house.”
The processing of the saag primarily involves segregating and boiling, which is done in steam boilers; in a day around two tonnes are processed. No preservatives are used as the ready-to-eat saag’s tin jars are vacuum-sealed.
These jars are then exported along with other products and sold under the brand name Narain Foods, named after Jagmohan’s father Narain Singh.
The saag unit had come after another venture by Jagmohan in the mid-nineties, a maize milling unit in Batala. Armed with a degree in food cereal milling and engineering from Birmingham University (UK), Jagmohan came back to his hometown Amritsar in 1986. He then came in contact with Dr Narpinder Singh, a renowned food technologist from the food sciences and technology department of Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) who suggested that a corn (maize)-milling plant would be an ideal project to set up in the area.
Thereafter in 1990 he set up a corn dry milling plant at Batala, for which around 50 small and marginal farmers of Hoshiarpur grow a certain golden yellow variety. Here, too, his modus operandi is the same as the saag unit. As in the case of mustard, for corn too Jagmohan pays Rs 2 to 3 per quintal above the maximum price in the market. Today, the rate of corn in the mandis is around Rs 1,600 per quintal and the average yield is around 20-22 quintals per acre. Maize too matures in 60 days while paddy and wheat take five months each. So, if maize is purchased at Rs 1602 per quintal by the Batala milling plant, farmers get Rs 28,040 from an acre (if yield is 20 quintals) while in case of wheat (at Rs 1450 per quintal and yield of 20 quintals) the farmers get Rs 29,000 from an acre. Taking into account all input costs for maize, a farmer saves around Rs 14,000 per acre which is more than wheat. Another advantage of maize is that it can be grown twice a year as there are winter and summer varieties.
He also grows strawberries on one acre, around 25,000 saplings worth Rs 50,000. A grower can pocket Rs 1.5 lakh if the rate is around Rs 80 per kg. “After taking out all costs, the saving from an acre works out to around Rs 50,000.” These too are used at his processing unit for jams and other products for his own brand and other food companies.
He rues that there are no cargo flights out of Amritsar and in the existing passenger flights the cargo space is very limited. Jagmohan says he has studied the Middle East market and found “great scope for export of freshly plucked green vegetables and fruit from Amritsar”.
“It is a two-hour flight from Amritsar to Dubai; if we have a daily cargo flight the life of the farmers, particularly the small and marginal ones, will change for the better.”
Jagmohan used to export his cooked saag and other items to England when the British Midland International was running between Amritsar and Birmingham. This flight had a lot of cargo capacity. But now, with the discontinuation of this flight, he has to make use of the sea route.
Tomorrow: Sweet success of stevia
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