High above the valley city of Rampur, on the slopes of one of Himachal Pradesh’s countless mountains, a group of village women are working together to bring their organic produce to the wider world. They’ve discovered that combining old techniques with new methods, building systems based on trust and local knowledge, and creating new enterprises for familiar products can have a huge impact on their community and livelihoods.
In winter, the region around Rampur is cold in the shade but warm in the sun, and snow only lingers on the tops of high hills. In the village, perched on the edge of the mountain almost an hour from Rampur up steep jack-knifed roads, I Say Organic met with several representatives of a village’s women’s organic farming collective under the strong winter sun to hear their stories.
Prior to 2011, the women in this village only grew vegetables for their own families. The collective, which was first organized by our host in the village, Rekha-ji, and which now includes 32 women, started as a self help group to learn about different types of vegetables and new techniques, but the women soon realized that if they worked together to produce food not just for themselves, but also for the wider world, they could increase their yields, increase the price for their produce, and improve their lives. They partnered with an organisation, which introduced them to new plant varieties and new techniques, like improved crop rotations and organic pest control, which increased yields and improve crop quality.
The region is remarkably rich and fertile. The women’s collective grows pulses, apples, cauliflower, cabbage, green peas, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and turnips; down in the valley, one can even see bananas growing. The black, sandy clay soil has never seen chemical fertilizers, so it has kept its rich carbon, nitrogen, and unique micronutrients. In these special conditions, the growing season is almost year round, which is why I Say Organic sources many of our vegetables in summer, when they are usually out of season, from this village.
Organic farming is embedded into the fabric of this community. When asked why they grow organically, many women gave confused looks, as if the answer was too obvious for the question. They grow organically because that’s how it’s always been done here, because they’ve grown food this way since before the ancient shiv mandir that looks over their fields was built, because to do anything else would be to completely change the fabric of this community. As an example, they point to the shared fountain at the edge of the village, where three spouts issue clear, cold mountain water from seven glacial springs. These springs provide water for people and animals, for crops, for washing, for everything. The women say that if they began to use chemicals and artificial fertilizers in their fields, they would eventually leak into the water supply, and then how would they live?
The women’s collective is strongly independent and committed to growth, solutions, and financing that come directly from one another. Although they’ll gladly take advice on how to improve their crops, and are glad for a supply chain that can take those crops to Delhi and across the world, they are proud that they can lean on one another for support and to grow the collective. Since 2011, the quality of their crops has improved, and their yields are greater. In turn, the standard of living for the whole village has improved, especially for young women and girls. More girls are going to school and progressing further in their studies, like Rekha-ji’s daughter, who is studying engineering.
Even if the organic techniques are primarily time-honored and unique to Himachal, the village collective is also distinctively up to date. Their produce is certified since 2011, meeting NOP, POP, and EU standards. They are using the latest organic techniques for fertilizers, natural pest control, and crop rotations. Himachal organic products are being exported abroad to markets with an eye to quality—rajma to Brazil, pinenuts to Europe. The collective is starting their own pickle making business to create subzi, lime, lemon, chili and pumpkin pickles, and their own food-processing center for apples, plums, apricots, and figs. They want to expand into mushroom farming and are organizing self-banking so they can conveniently rely on one another for borrowing and lending.
The women in this village will continue farming much the way they always have, and continue to work together to help themselves and one another. However, thanks to their own efforts and through the growing market for organic foods in Delhi, across India, and around the world, ever more people will get to experience the uniqueness of Himachal’s organic tradition for themselves.