Farmer turns to Twitter to sell cabbages, fails to find buyers
Turns out a bumper crop is bad news for farmers in times of Covid-19.
On April 18, vegetable farmer Kannaiyan Subramaniam uploaded a video of his cabbage field on social media platform, Twitter. Within hours, it went viral with several users commenting on the video, and tagging others to amplify his message.
The 50-year-old vegetable farmer in Voddarahalli village in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagara district, located on the border with Tamil Nadu, said that he had nearly 100 tonnes of cabbage that was ready for harvest.
Faced with the prospect of fresh and healthy cabbages rotting in the 3.5-acre land that he farms on lease, Subramaniam who is also the general secretary of the South India Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements, a farmers rights lobby group, posted a 15-second video in Tamil asking people to help him find buyers. He offered his entire crop for Rs 3 lakh, a sum that he said, would barely cover his initial investment. Since then, the video has received more than 305,000 views, 25,000 retweets, and plenty of gratuitous advice. Subramaniam is yet to find a buyer. He said that while he was in talks with parliamentarian Tejasvi Surya’s team, who has offered to buy 15 tonnes, nothing was finalised as yet.
In the past 24 hours, others have taken to social media platforms to seek buyers for their produce, including a watermelon farmer from Bijapur, a tomato farmer from Sarjapur and a banana farmer from Tutocorin.
With markets shut and people homebound due to the lockdown, demand for produce across the country has crashed. Unable to sell much, vegetable farmers are saddled with massive losses. This is the story of thousands of vegetable farmers across India today.
According to an April 8 report by Credit Suisse, a financial research firm, despite a bumper harvest in the Rabi season, the arrival of fruit and vegetables in the country’s wholesale markets has fallen by a whopping 50-95%, as only a fraction of the 7,000 wholesale markets have been functioning after the lockdown was enforced. In 2019-20, Indian farmers sold 284 million tonnes of horticultural produce worth Rs 5 lakh crore. Even assuming only a 50% fall in market arrivals over a month of lockdown, vegetable farmers would have lost in excess of Rs 20,000 crore.
Subramaniam sold his previous harvest of cabbages for Rs 11.50 a kilogramme. “I’m not looking for profit. I would be happy if I can recover my cost and the cabbages reach those who don’t have enough to eat in these times,” he told Hindustan Times, two days after posting the video.
Subramaniam’s plight illustrates how the already bumpy road from farm-to-fork has caved in during the lockdown. A few days ago, local newspapers in Karnataka reported that nearly 70 farmers in Shivamogga district were stuck with 2,000 tonnes of ash gourd as regular buyers from Delhi and Agra failed to turn up. ‘Petha’, the popular north Indian sweet is made of candied ash gourd.
Similarly, Panruti in Cuddalore district is the jackfruit capital of Tamil Nadu. With the onset of summer, the giant, spiky fruits are everywhere but the demand has dried up. Some local businessmen and charitable organisations in the region pooled in money and bought the jackfruit from farmers. The lot was handed over to the local municipal authorities that door delivered vegetables. Anyone who purchased a 3 kg vegetable pack sold by the government at Rs 100 was given a free jackfruit; ordinarily, the fruit costs close to Rs 150.
Subramaniam rang up the agri war room helpline set up by the Karnataka government, which functions between 8am to 8pm to help farmers’ with transportation passes, farm equipment access and disease management. “The officials told me they couldn’t do anything about procurement directly but offered to connect me to traders who could only pay Rs 2 a kilo. The traders said even that price could not be guaranteed,” he said.
Usually, market agents from distant parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka would visit Subramaniam’s farm and harvest the required quantity of cabbage themselves. If Subramaniam wanted to sell his produce at big market centres of Erode or Chennai for a higher price, he would harvest, sort, package and transport the vegetables directly to traders there. Since the lockdown, agents haven’t been able to come to his farm.
“Hiring a mini-truck that can carry about 5-6 tonnes of cabbage to the market isn’t viable. During the lockdown operators charge more than Rs 30,000 for one consignment from my village to the wholesale market in Chennai,” Subramaniam said. One grocery retail chain sought to buy 3000 cabbages from him at Rs 5 apiece, but asked Subramaniam to deliver them at a collection centre in Mandya 125 km away. He refused, because he felt that paying for transportation would have meant throwing good money after bad. “No matter how you dice it, there is no way I can even break even,” he said.
“When the lockdown is lifted, demand will inch up but the loss-ridden farmers will not have the financial means to invest in a new crop. With a fall in production consumer prices will skyrocket. It’s a deadly spiral for both the farmer and consumer,” said Subramaniam.