Agriculture isn’t the leap you want to make when thousands of kilometres separate consumers and you. It was the grit and determination of Karam Vir Singh Sidhu (64) and his true farmer’s DNA that made him jump into this risky environment.
At an early age, Sidhu lost his father, a farmer in Mansa district; and his mother moved to Patiala. By 1979, he was an excise and taxation officer in the state but looking to do something exciting in agriculture. Going to seminars and workshops helped him understand that exotic vegetables had a huge market in India and abroad. “Farming was in my blood and I was eager do something different. I collaborated with three friends and some other stakeholders to put in the seed money for our company, Patiala Horticulture. In 1996, took five-year sabbatical from service to start growing runner beans in Talwandi Sabo for a Dutch company,” said Sidhu. The first year brought him a big shock — the pack house from the Punjab government didn’t work when the produce from 60 acres was to be preserved before exporting.
“We made a collective loss of Rs 15 lakh, yet we paid off the dues — land rent and input cost to the 40 farmers from three villages who had got involved in our venture — and moved on,” said Sidhu, his easy tone telling you how calmly he faced adversity. Later, he was able to sell his idea to Parkash Singh Badal, who was chief minister even then, and secure Rs 59 lakh soft loan for creating infrastructure such as pack house at Lalgarh village of Samana tehsil in Patiala district. There’s no looking back since. This pack house is among best 180 in the country.
“Since 2001, I have reaped good income year after year from exporting vegetables to Europe and Australia. Only last year, when the Centre changed its quarantine rules, we decided to take a year’s break until conditions became favourable again,” said Sidhu, now almost an every in growing sugar snaps and snow peas, with control of the entire channel of procuring seeds, growing, sorting, preserving, marketing in Europe. The 40 small farmers who gave him their combined pool of 1 to 1.5 acres within a 35 kilometre radius at Samana, Amloh and Bhadson earns the same as Sidhu.
Sidhu’s annual turnover from growing sugar snaps and snow peas is between Rs 1.25-to-3 crore, which last year’s changed quarantine norms brought it down to Rs 11 lakh. He had to dump a lot of produce.
Onion brings cheers
Sidhu sure knows his onions. For the past two years, he has started growing the bulb over 50 acres, state’s largest cultivation of this crop. “Punjab consumes about 7.5-lakh-tonne onion a year and produces only 1.5-lakn tonnes. My target is to give farmers a net profit of Rs 50,000 from each acre, a big challenge but one that I have accepted,” he said. On 20 of these 50 acres, he has installed the drip irrigation system with the government subsidy.
For him, onion has three growing seasons. “The best is rabi, with transplantation in mid-December and harvest in April. Kharif transplantation is in July-August and harvest in November; and late kharif season begins in September-October. The late-kharif crop is exposed to many risks but we experiment all three seasons,” he adds.
Sidhu’s company is in talks with Vista Foods for the supply of onion to McDonald’s, world’s largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants, for which he has grown a single-centred hybrid variety. If the deal works out, he hopes to get a price of Rs 25 a kilogram.
Experimenting with garlic, asparagus
Sidhu is growing garlic for the first time, over 5 acres for a Chinese company, to sell in the US. If the experiment is successful, he will approach the American companies directly. He is also dong trials on growing asparagus over 1 acre. The crop will mature in three years, after which he hopes to get Rs 300 a kilogram for the harvest and a net profit of Rs 3 lakh from each acre. It will continue to give him fruit for the next 20 years.
Income for the landless
The entrepreneur hires nearly 100 landless women from the poor village families and pays them Rs 150 every day. In many cases, all the women of a family come to work, and make up to Rs 20,000 a month together.
Passed over at job, but no regrets
Sidhu’s success in agriculture has come at the cost of growth in his government job. “I lost seven increments and a promotion. Subordinates superseded me. Had I continued working, I would have retired as joint commissioner,” he says, adding: “Also, had I not been in service, I could have done much better in agriculture. But even my ETO’s job earned me a lots of contacts.”
Retail in his chain of thoughts
The farmer’s Patiala Horticulture company plans to open temperature-controlled vegetable retail outlets, starting with two in Patiala in April. He has signed a deal with the Punjab government to get into food park in two years with an investment of Rs 15 crore. “Vegetable growers are waiting for our initiative,” he told HT.
Tomorrow: Delicious saga of success
Read earlier parts of the series