The Greatest Gain: Confidence, Profit and Self-Reliance
Over the course of just five years, the mutual partnership between CSIR-CIMAP and Amrita SeRVe has been able to help more than 100 farmers in Chhattisgarh to have a secure and profitable additional source of income from cultivating and processing lemongrass and other aromatic plants.
After witnessing this success story unfold over the years, the local administration of Kondagaon district has recently launched an expansion of the programme under the name Kondaanaar. In partnership with CSIR-CIMAP, this project aims at covering 2,000 acres with aromatic and medicinal crops in the district.
“Our feet are walking and we keep transforming our Kondagaon village.”
Lemongrass, Palmarosa, Vetiver, Pachauli, Ambadi Tulasi, and Moringa crops give more benefits and additional income for farmers.
On this significant occasion, Amrita SeRVe, the Self-Reliant Village project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, was prompted to reflect on the work that led up to this moment. What were the factors that contributed to taking this group of farmers to the top of the success stories of the vast Aroma Mission of CSIR-CIMAP that involves thousands of farmers? How can farmers reap the benefits of cultivating aromatic plants and using unfamiliar distillation technology without creating new dependencies? Let us explore.
The story began just over five-and-a-half years ago when Amrita SeRVe’s Director, Swami Jnanamritananda Puri, former Co-Director, Anju Bist, and Agriculture Officer Ghanshyam Upadhyay visited the Director of CSIR-CIMAP, Prof. Anil Kumar Tripathi, at their headquarters in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. One month after this successful meeting an MoU was drafted and signed in the presence of Amma, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, in Amritapuri, Kerala, in December 2016.
This MoU laid the foundation for what was to become one of the great success stories of both CSIR-CIMAP and Amrita SeRVe. While CSIR-CIMAP would offer initial planting material, technical expertise, and installation of processing infrastructure, Amrita SeRVe would work alongside with the farmers to promote the project, implement it, and do daily follow-up. This project became so successful because of the mutual relationship between farmers, a government agency, and a non-governmental organisation.
CSIR-CIMAP invited Amrita SeRVe’s representatives to attend their annual farmers’ fare in January 2017 in Lucknow. Amrita SeRVe’s Agriculture Officer Ghanshyam Upadhyay, then Senior Programme Manager Pushkar Joshi, and former Village Coordinator Jamuna Kashyap visited the fare with five farmers from villages in Kondagaon district where Amrita SeRVe has been implementing various development initiatives since 2013.
After the fare, Ghanshyam returned to the village with 1,000 lemongrass slips that he carried in two large bundles. For one acre, between 22 to 25 thousand slips are needed. He planted this material as a trial in the village. As the lemongrass slips took root in the soil and extended their slender leaves into the sky, Ghanshyam was busy making arrangements with CSIR-CIMAP and promoting the project among farmers.
After more than ten meetings with CIMAP officials and countless interactions with local farmers, the first group of ten courageous farmers finally banded together and committed to begin cultivation on ten acres of barren land.
By November 2017, CSIR-CIMAP arranged for 2.5 lakh (250 thousand) lemongrass slips to be delivered to these ten farmers in the village. Under their Aroma Mission they offered support to farmers by supplying the planting materials for the first half to one acre. CSIR-CIMAP’s experienced senior scientists also visited the fields of farmers and held functions together with Amrita SeRVe introducing various techniques.
Such events became successful because throughout the year, Amrita SeRVe’s staff was there to support the farmers every step of the way. In this manner, the technical knowledge imparted by the scientists would actually see implementation in the farmers’ fields.
By the end of February 2018, the construction of the first distillation unit funded by the Aroma Mission was completed. This meant that the first harvest of the new aromatic crop that has ripened in the course of 100 days, could already be distilled in early March in the vicinity of the fields.
The first litre of lemongrass essential oil was bottled up and taken to Delhi where it was offered to Amma at a public programme on the 15th of March 2018. Just three days later, at a grand public event in Chandigarh, Amma presented the essential oil to the forest minister of Punjab and various other dignitaries.
In total, 120 kg of essential oil were extracted from the first harvest of 10 acres of land. Since this was the first time they had this produce, it was difficult to identify a market where it could be sold at a good rate. With persistent effort, however, Amrita SeRVe’s agriculture officer was able to make contact with a buyer in Lucknow. He himself carried the first two 60 kg canisters of the farmers’ essential oil to the buyer to make the deal.
Hence, in April the first produce was sold at a rate of Rs. 1,600 per kg and the proceeds could be distributed among the farmers. They were overjoyed, because this money was purely additional income for them. The proceeds obtained from lemongrass cultivation gave them some relief from the immense financial pressure that usually looms over their heads while they are relentlessly toiling in the fields.
Now that lemongrass cultivation has taken root in this community of farmers, many more felt inspired to join. The number of farmers increased from 10 to 38. This time the planting material could be sourced locally from the initial ten farmers. CSIR-CIMAP once again released the funds to cover the cost for the slips. Through this, the farmers got an additional income of Rs. 3.5 lakh (approx. 4,500 U.S. dollars).
In November 2018 it was time for the big harvest. They spent a whole month reaping and distilling. Coordinating this was a big challenge, because now there were 38 farmers ready to have their crop processed and everyone wanted to do it immediately. Adding to the pressure of logistics were frequent power cuts, which meant that the cooling system, which is a crucial component of the distillation process, would temporarily cease to function introducing delays and processing complexities.
Such practical challenges were overcome and an exporting company in Lucknow was identified as buyer. This time, pickup of the essential oil was arranged by the buyer in the village. Again, the profits were distributed among farmers, and again the soothing scent of lemongrass that permeated the atmosphere surrounding the cultivation grounds was accompanied by a sense of joy and relief resulting from the additional income to these farming families.
Harvest by harvest, more and more farmers joined and the programme expanded. By July 2019 there were more than 70 farmers involved and in October of the same year, the second distillation unit was inaugurated. Around this time, the farmers were also introduced to vermi-composting to provide natural fertiliser to their crops.
By giving natural fertiliser to the aromatic plants, they produce essential oil of higher concentration, which makes it more desirable and valuable. Before getting quotes from buyers, the essential oil is tested for its citral content. Based on this result, buyers will make their offers. The average citral content of the oil produced by these farmers is above 70%, which places their product in high demand among organically cultivated lemongrass oils.
In November 2019, the third distillation unit became operational and the farmers’ additional incomes continued flourishing. By March 2020, there were more than 100 farmers who had joined the initiative, cultivating more than 70 acres of lemongrass and an additional 20 acres of mentha, which is another aromatic crop that can be processed in the same distillation facility. To change the crop in the distillation unit, it is merely required that water is boiled in-between batches of different variety.
By the time the pandemic disrupted Amrita SeRVe’s ability to travel to the villages in Chhattisgarh in the course of 2020, the farmers had already acquired all the necessary skills and confidence to proceed on their own. During this period Amrita SeRVe’s agriculture officer maintained continuous follow-up with the farmers over the phone, especially guiding them through the process of getting the best deals for selling their produce.
At this point, the farmers already had a large number of potential buyers, as well as the experience and self-confidence to be tougher in negotiations. They won’t just settle for any price now! Ghanshyam has made them aware of the value of their product and also trained them on the important criteria that constitute a good deal for them.
Since the beginning of this year, however, the farmers have managed every aspect of cultivation, distillation and even sales entirely by themselves. It is with the attainment of this self-reliance that Amrita SeRVe’s vision has truly been fulfilled.
Let us conclude by summarising the key factors that led to this accomplishment. CSIR-CIMAP had the vision to implement aromatic crop cultivation in the villages under the Aroma Mission and guaranteed to cover the costs of core components, namely planting material and distillation units. They further committed their time and resources to supporting the farmers in whatever way they could.
On the other side of this partnership was the grassroots-level initiative of Amrita SeRVe, which enabled maximum benefits to reach the farmers. From planting the first lemongrass slips in barren land, to forming farmers’ groups, learning new cultivation methods, harvesting techniques, operating the distillation unit, and finally identifying markets and selling their top-quality essential oils under optimal conditions, Amrita SeRVe’s officers who stayed in the village were able to guide and support the farmers every step along the way.
Through the earnest effort and funding provided by CSIR-CIMAP, the tireless and wholehearted dedication of Amrita SeRVe’s officers, the farmers’ hard physical work, and Amma’s boundless grace, in the course of just five years, more than 100 farmers have become confident and self-reliant producers of aromatic essential oils, contributing to a Self-Reliant India’s (Atmanirbhar Bharat) Aromatic Mission.
May this success story act as a role model for many similar initiatives to come.