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    Combining horticulture, supply-chain and information technology expertise, the team at First Agro is defining organic farming in the country. 

    With a planned investment of USD 20 million in 1,500 acres of Codex-compliant production, to be set up across 16 identified locations in North, West, Central and South India over the next five years, First Agro is hoping to change the way India buys and eats vegetables.

    One meeting with Nameet Modekurti will make you completely rethink the way you shop for veggies. His farm, located in the ‘Cauvery’ Cluster in Karnataka, is spread across 45 acres of virgin soil and set to expand to about 120 acres over the next 18 months. More farm clusters will be implemented in Maharashtra for the Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Ahmednagar markets and the group plans to close at Rs 6.8 crore revenue in March 2014.

    There are also ambitious projections to touch 75 million USD by 2018 through 16 agro clusters across the country — but within motorable distances from major cities so that produce reaches the market in five-six hours. A casual visit to the Bangalore farm is a revelation. A virtual island of the freshest organic produce you will find anywhere in the country, they transport 30 tonnes of the stuff to Bangalore city every month retailing under the First Agro brand. Among their regular clients are five-star hotels like the Ritz Carlton, restaurants like The Glasshouse and City Bar, and gourmet markets like Foodhall and Auchan.

    Chefs have been known to go wild with delight and die-hard non-vegetarians have been known to pull out veggies by the roots and consume them whole. The neatly planted rows reveal vines heavy with heirloom tomatoes in shapes and colours ranging from golden yellow to chocolate brown and from tiny ovals to gigantic, almost misshapen spheres of juiciness, weighing upto a kilogram each. Deep purple okra, chillies in unimaginable colours and textures almost too pretty to use, lettuce leaves bursting with pungent flavour or micro greens rich with spice and scent.

    The best part is you can eat anything straight off the plant without even needing to rinse, simply because Nameet, his brother Naveen and cousin Prasad, have teamed up to grow zero-pesticide produce, in compliance with stringent WHO’s Codex Alimentarius, the highest food safety standard worldwide. They have a pile of reports verifying that the produce has been independently tested and found to be zero-pesticide – just in case anyone is interested. “You are welcome to pick our veggies at random and get them tested anywhere,” Nameet says, adding, “sadly the term CODEX means nothing to the average consumer. In fact, the phrase organic farming is treated with skepticism as it is often used just to hike up prices”.

    It is something he feels very passionately about and he tells us how the idea for a 100 per cent organic farm grew out of a genuine concern for the way crops are grown in the country in sharp contrast to agricultural practises elsewhere, especially Canada and Europe. “India is being slowly poisoned and people don’t really seem to care how pesticides are literally soaking into our foods and getting into our systems. Government policies centre around vote banks and the rampant use of banned chemicals carries on unchecked. Even countries like Pakistan are ahead of us in Codex implementation,” he says.

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    On the team
    Nameet, a commercial pilot by profession is the co-founder and chief production head at First Agro. Also an expert in Olericulture (science of vegetable growing), hydroponics and integrated pest management, he has pioneered the Zero Pesticide cultivation method used on their farm. Based out of Vancouver for many years, he used to operate red eye flights till his flying time was slashed during the economic slowdown. “I used to fly over vast tracts of farmland and I was fascinated by the sheer scale and depth of farming in these regions. I began to look more closely at products on supermarket shelves to discover where they came from and what they were made of,” he explains. This curiosity led to a discussion with his brother Naveen, who now lives in Japan with his family — and the idea to start First Agro took root.

    Naveen used to head Hewlett Packard’s Asia Pacific region and is also an Indologist, having extensively researched the cultural and practises of ancient India. The brothers teamed up with another relative, K N Prasad, who had extensive experience in supply chain management and farming practices. Drawing on information carefully documented in hundreds of pages of handwritten notes compiled through extensive research and development conducted on farms internationally, the trio began to produce a vast range of vegetables, many grown forthe first time in the country.

    Nameet also believes in leaving organic footprints across the city — from Michelin starred chef Anupam Banerjee’s garden at The Ritz Carlton which is bursting with exotic herbs to the edible living wall he set up at Siddarth Poojary and Rohinton Motthahed’s restaurant, The Glasshouse. It is another first in the country and diners here can have their food picked fresh off the plant and prepared by the chef on the spot.

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    Take the tour
    It is with sheer delight that Nameet shows visitors around the farm, stopping to crush a handful of fragrant Thai basil, pick a delicate courgette flower, point out a gongura plant or inviting you to taste an heirloom tomato. “Stuff these flowers with herbs and cheese and fry them lightly or simply wilt them in olive oil and stir into a risotto,” he suggests before introducing you to his crop of heirloom tomatoes.

    Less knowledgeable chefs have tended to dismiss them because they don’t resemble the uniform shaped modern hybrid varieties on supermarket shelves. “Heirlooms are grown from seed that has produced the same variety of tomato for at least fifty years. They are certified organic, grown outside and pollinated. They blemish and spoil much quicker than factory produced hybrid tomatoes, but they are prized for their flavour. Some, like the Cherokee Purple, have a sweet, rich, smoky taste — perfect in a salsa, chopped up with a jalapeno pepper, onion, coriander, lemon juice and a dash of salt. Or a Great White that can be sliced and served with a little ground sea salt and fresh pepper,” he enthuses before moving on to a cluster of Red Rubin basil with its deep purple-red leaves and hints of bronze. “These make a lovely accent to salads or dressings and are also delicious in marinara sauces. They can also be used to infuse in herbed vinegar, turning it a lovely shade of magenta,” he tells us, encouraging us to crush a handful of Purple basil and release its delicate spicy flavours of clove, licorice, mint and cinnamon.

    “It adds a layer of complexity to a salad or even a cocktail. And don’t even get me started on the health benefits of cholesterol-lowering ability of steamed red mustard leaves that grow so profusely here. I mostly tear them raw into salads and allow their gentle pungency to take the other ingredients in an appealing direction. I admit that their sawtooth crenelations and raspy spice need a bit of taming, but that is why they lend themselves so brilliantly to heartier combinations,” he reasons.

    In the meanwhile, Rohinton Mottahed, one of the partners at The Glasshouse is pleased at the way his chefs can get all their basic herb requirements for the restaurant on a daily basis – clean, fresh and minus any contaminants, straight off the edible wall. “Working with First Agro is always a pleasure. They understand the concept of farm to fork and team up with us to plan menus and grow produce accordingly,” he shares.

    Details: firstagro.com

    - Jackie Pinto (m jackie@newindianexpress.com)

    Pics credit: Jithendra M,
    Location courtesy: First Agro farm and The Glass House

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