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Moving towards a sustainable agricultural model

Karthik Jayaramam
30th May 2020

Like robots, we make copious amounts of food that isn't sustainable nor rich in what mother nature bestowed on us. This had to change. And so, Outgrow was born.

The beefy Mahindra SUV ground to a halt, pulling to one side of the narrow, rutted farm road. We were in the midst of one of India’s most productive horticultural regions, staring at a field of freshly planted tomato seedlings. Drip irrigation lines neatly crisscrossed the red earth and faded off into the distance. Seedlings were planted in an orderly fashion, standing like soldiers in formation. Everything seemed neat, organized, and idyllic.

Sendhil, Shenoy and I walked into the field. A seasoned hobby farmer himself, Sendhil picked up some of the topsoil in his fist, and let it run through his fingers. He looked up, anguished. “This soil has no life…. no worms… no creatures… no nutrients… nothing!”, he said, “It is just dust!”. “What we are doing here is nothing but hydroponics with dust as a medium”. That’s when it hit us.

We at WayCool had been working to steadily build a direct farm-to-fork supply chain, connecting farmers and their produce directly to end users. In three and a half years, we had built a base of over 35,000 small and medium farmers, and were moving 250 tons of food every day to 134 towns across Southern India.

We had been toying with the idea of engaging more deeply with our farmer base — to move beyond the transactional and engage more meaningfully. The visit to the above farm was part of that quest.

We realized, at that moment, that what was productive, was not necessarily sustainable. Our laser-like focus as a society on improving yields to feed our many mouths, was possibly robbing future generations of their food. We were turning our soil into dust, and our vegetables into mealy, tasteless and nutrition-less blobs of productivity. Our scientific temper had perhaps turned into hubris, ignoring the power of nature and its ability to enrich our food through myriad nutrients in the soil, and its ability to enrich the soil itself through regeneration. Instead, like robots we produce great looking, copious amounts of produce that is not sustainable nor rich in what mother nature bestowed on us.

This had to change. We had to change. And so, Outgrow was born.

Outgrow is WayCool’s agricultural extension program. With Outgrow, WayCool aims to build a set of farming practices that restores taste and nutrition in food, while strengthening and sustaining the ecosystem that produces food.

The process begins with soil testing. While India has made significant progress in soil health measurement, the farmer needs to travel a considerable distance to get the test results. WayCool has partnered with a network of startups to bring portable soil test kits to the farm. With these kits, the farm’s nutrient and micro-nutrient levels are tested on site.

A crop plan is selected based on demand WayCool is able to predict and what the soil will support. This includes staggered cultivation to ensure continual yield for the farmer, crop rotation for nitrogen fixation where required, and border cropping to attract pests away from the main crop. Where the acreage permits, farmers are also taught to plant fruit trees or other long life crops along the edges, so as to provide long term income while enriching and strengthening the soil.

A set of practices is defined for the farmer, which is uploaded into the company’s app, and monitored every day by WayCool’s field officers. The final output is measured for quality — nitrate levels, brix, acidity and residue levels, and the farmer feedback on the modifications required. WayCool believes that this closed loop monitoring system will over time improve produce quality and taste, while simultaneously strengthening the soil for sustainable farming.

Outgrow goes beyond this. Trained agronomists teach farmers on the preparation of vermicompost. They organize systematic drives to eliminate that scourge of the soil — plastic, from our fields.

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Teaching farmers on preparation of vermicompost

 

Outgrow agronomists experiment with various border crops that can be used to attract pests away from the main crop. They also work to combine native intelligence with technology to use more sustainable ways of pest control. For example, WayCool’s agronomists train farmers to use neem seed kernel extract to repel diamondback moths from cruciferous crops, which are consumed in large quantities in India.

Most recently, the Outgrow team has launched an integrated weather advisory platform, an app that scrapes weather data from open weather sources, as well as portable weather stations installed in partnership with another agri-tech startups, and provides advisories through an android app, as well as text messages in native languages to all subscribing farmers.

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This is just the beginning. We have considerable ground to cover, literally and figuratively. We have a lot to learn and to transmit. WayCool will not do this alone. We would like to build an alliance of like-minded organizations to tackle this, united in coordination worldwide.

We have made a small beginning through the setup of our first private Agricultural Research Station in Hosur, near Bengaluru. The Outgrow Agricultural Research Station provides a platform for our own agronomists, as well as other like-minded startups, to experiment with and demonstrate their technology to farmers and farmer cooperatives. We broke ground in December, and hope to restart soon, as soon as the CoVID crisis comes under control. 

Together, we will build a better world for our future generations. We owe that much to our children.

 

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