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Indian farmers see the profit in going organic

Chemical-free products enjoy steady demand from wealthy consumers

A local employee displays organic green peppers grown on his farm in the outskirts of New Delhi.

MUMBAI -- Locally-grown organic vegetables are finding a market among wealthy locals and foreign residents in India. High-end supermarkets in Mumbai and other large cities are making more space on their shelves for such chemical-free vegetables and fruits.

As the country's economy continues to expand, organic farm products, which are a little too expensive for ordinary people here, could nevertheless be on an upward trend. The government is also keen to promote organic products by introducing a certification program. 

A 45-minute or so drive from central New Delhi to the southern outskirts leads to a cluster of farms in Sultanpur district. Behind the gate, a vast field stretches, though high walls divide each of the farms. One such field, called the Strawberry farm, is a popular location for wealthy locals and foreign residents to buy fresh vegetables directly from the grower. Some 250 types of vegetables -- from onions to mushrooms to spinach -- along with strawberries, are grown in the 20,000-sq.-meter field. The typical harvesting season in sweltering hot New Delhi is from September to March.

"What are you looking for?" a friendly farm worker said, as he invited a guest inside. "Do you like green peppers? We have spinach, too." The worker was keen to show the farm's products.

"We use organic compost only," such as coconut coir, he said. "Our products are free from chemicals and pesticides." That makes products from the farm more expensive than ordinary vegetables. Onions there cost 40 rupees (62 cents) or so per kilogram, about twice the price for non-organic products. Still, a number of customers often come to visit the the farm on the outskirts of the capital.

The farm is the first grower of strawberries in the region, which is why the place is now called the Strawberry farm.

Transparent Agro, the farm's operator, also owns the New Delhi branch of the American luxury hotel chain Hyatt Regency. Fresh vegetables from the farm are delivered to the hotel every morning. The farm sells its products mainly to wholesalers, but there are also routes to reach consumers directly.

An increasing number of local groceries are selling organic products. A southern Mumbai location of high-end supermarket chain Nature's Basket devotes two of its six large shelves of vegetables for organic products. The special farm products are delivered to the shop twice a week, and are often sold out in several days.

Across the globe, organic vegetables are generally priced higher than those grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. An organically grown cauliflower, for example, costs 50 rupees per 250 grams at Nature's Basket. This is 2.6 times more expensive than non-organic ones. "Only rich people can buy organic products," a local woman in Mumbai said. Down to Earth, an organic food store chain, also sells a variety of chemical-free products under its own label.

According to the Indian government, the country produced 1.35 million tons of certified organic products in the year through March 2016, of which some 260,000 tons, worth $300 million, was exported to Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and elsewhere. Key production locations include the states of Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

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