01 Sep Exclusive: Fresh veg supplier Lawrencedale nears Series A funding round
One March morning, when Coimbatore resident Raju Gopukumar returned home after his walk with packets of neatly packed and labelled vegetables, his wife R Radhika was surprised. He had never bothered to buy vegetables until told to. The packets, with a “Leaf” stamp, contained vegetables such as beetroot, carrot and zucchini. Radhika was impressed because the vegetables were clean and of uniform size.
When she enquired about the shop, Raju asked her to peep out of the apartment window. There stood a “Namma Thottam” (our garden) van, which goes around the city selling fresh vegetables.
The vans belong to Lawrencedale Estates and Farms, a company founded in 2008 in the Nilgiris. “We are striving to take forward the Perimetro Vegetable Cluster Development Programme mooted by the Government of Tamil Nadu,” says Palat Vijayaraghavan, Chief Executive Officer, Lawrencedale Estates and Farms.
The cluster programme enables farmers to auction their produce at collection centres. The Tamil Nadu Horticulture Development Agency (TANHODA) chose Lawrencedale, in a public-private-partnership venture, to link these clusters to end-consumers, says N Mani, Joint Director (Horticulture).
The company has since opened up farmer support and aggregation centres at Masakkal, near Kotagiri in the Nilgiris, and at Thondamuthur on the outskirts of Coimbatore, where the produce from farmers is bought and put in cold storage. The vegetables are later despatched in cold-storage vans to Lawrendale’s agro processing facility near Mettupalayam, Here they are washed, graded and packed. Vijayaraghavan says that the company uses its “ozone” technology, a cleaning process, to reduce the contaminant level of the vegetables.
Containing the damage
The awareness on pesticides has risen in the local market after the alarm raised by the Kerala government in June over ‘contaminated’ vegetables coming from Tamil Nadu. It was alleged that the vegetables contained pesticide residue at least three times higher than the permissible limit.
About 100 truck load of vegetables and fruits are transported from Mettupalayam to Kerala every day. Each truck carries at least 10 tonnes of farm produce.
Till now the community seemed to be at cross-roads, not knowing which way to go. The need for higher agricultural productivity and concerns over pesticide residual impact on food items are compelling them to look at alternative options.
R Jagadeesh, a farmer from Udumalpet taluk of Tirupur district, says he had never bothered much over use of chemical sprays in his farmland, until recently.
“It’s not so today. There is huge resistance to buy the vegetables such as onion and tomato which I grow in this three-acre holding.
“Buyers, mostly traders, take one look at the produce, enquire discretely about the use of chemicals before offering to pay rates that does not even cover my cultivation expense,” laments Jagadeesh. Gajendra, a farmer of Ooty, cultivates carrot, potato, beetroot, garlic and cabbage using synthetic inputs. He admits to spraying fertilisers and chemicals at every stage of the crop. “No department official or agriculture expert advises us. We use chemicals based on experience, but the nematode menace and white fly incidenceare pretty high.
“When the Indo-German project (promoted by the two governments) was mooted a couple of years back, we were given sprays and chemicals to control the incidence.
“This project was aimed at finding solutions to global challenges such as energy supply, environmental degradation and climate change. But pests have become immune to the spurious chemicals that we get now,” laments Gajendra.
“Modern retailers increasingly face tough time sourcing vegetables which are not merely hygienic, but environmentally safe as well. Such retailers are actively turning to us for their supplies,” says the Lawrencedale CEO. G Abimanyu Ganesh, Director, QRS (Kerala-based retailer and franchisee for Nilgiris) concedes that there are a lot of grey areas in the industry. “While awareness about food safety is high, even food inspectors cannot vouch for it as there is yet no specific mechanism.”