Q1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your family?
I am an ex-banker & financial professional turned-entrepreneur from Mumbai.
I completed my Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management in Pune. My past work stints include HSBC Bank, DCM Shriram, Disney, a few NBFCs, Intellecap (a start-up ecosystem builder), and Private Equity & VC funds both nationally & internationally.
In 2016, I decided to leave my corporate life behind in Mumbai and come back home to Agra, where my parents live. My decision to shift from traditional farming to a more sustainable form of agriculture was met with immense support from my father, Ajay Kishore and sister, Sonu Mehrotra, who manage the farm along with me. As a family, we are quite supportive of each other in doing something new.
Q2. Next we have to ask what everyone asks you: why leave a corporate job and get into farming and that too ‘Regenerative farming’ specifically?
Despite having a successful corporate life, I felt that something was missing.I knew I wanted a slow-paced life and something more meaningful. I felt disconnected to my corporate life that was thriving on living in excess. I wanted a change. So I quit my job in Mumbai and headed back to Agra to work on my family-owned farm.
Moving to regenerative farming was something my sister and I felt passionately about. Regenerative farming is a holistic land management practice that “does no harm” to the land but regenerates and revitalises the soil and the environment. It emerges from an alignment to nature. It is almost a spiritual practice.
Regenerative techniques echoed deeply within me and my need to reconnect with life or rather be immersed in it. I have always been a huge environmentalist at heart. At one time, I wanted to become a forest ranger. Regenerative farming came closest to that call. And I took the plunge at it.
Q3. How’s Organic Farming different from Regenerative Farming?
Humans are extractors. We extract coal, minerals, fossil fuels and water. Through modern agriculture, we are extracting all the nutrients and minerals from the earth. And we don't like to give back!
Regenerative agriculture is about giving back! It is a system of “regeneration” and ‘self-sustenance’. A methodology which adopts nature’s recycling at it’s heart. Organic farming is like modern agriculture in some aspects. The principles behind organic farming and
regenerative farming are as distinct as night and day.
Organic farming is much like modern agriculture. Organic lands can be large areas of monocropping fields with one difference - synthetic inputs such as chemical fertilizers & pesticides are exchanged for organic fertilisers and natural pesticides. However, the value system of yield and profits remain at the heart of its operations. The role of humans, techniques and tools remains central to it’s execution.
On the other hand, regenerative farming requires a massive shift in your outlook. It needs a change in the way you view agriculture and the ecosystems surrounding it. You are no more just a grower of crops but a resorter of ecosystems. This is a completely different approach and requires an understanding of how nature works. You work with nature rather than against it.
Q4. What was the single biggest challenge you faced when you started on this journey?
Regenerative farming is an adoption of agroforestry that works on building soil health, increased biodiversity, improved water tables, integrated pest management, integrated livestock management and much more. It is more permanent and can also be referred to as Permaculture.
When I first started, I was a rookie and I started with growing cash crops and some vegetables. Since I had zero technical understanding of farming, my source of knowledge were the local farmers in the vicinity and use of chemicals was extremely common and more a matter of fact.
Initially, I decided to shift from chemical-based farming to organic farming. It was hugely challenging. Finding an authentic expert with practical experience, who could guide me in this field was very difficult. Traditional farmers practiced outdated techniques so they were of little help. Furthermore, finding the right skillset & staff to help on the farm was almost impossible.
I had almost given up on organic farming, when, as fate would have it, I visited a distant relative’s farm in Chandigarh. She was practicing permaculture on 10 acres of land and that was the first time I truly believed that it was possible to grow organically.
The next set of challenges we faced were when we started retailing our produce to the end consumer. Building trust and explaining the concept of regenerative farming has been a task. Customers always feel “Yeh organic toh sab jhoot hai” (organic products are lies). We overcome this hurdle by building transparency in our ways of farming and processing. That has helped in building trust in our work and quality of the product.
Q5. Tell us a bit about Advait Living Farms - retail store? And how’s that helping the local farmer community?
We have now set up an eponymous small retail store — Advait Living Farms, in Agra that is mostly focused on non-perishables. We are also building our online presence via instagram and facebook.
Over a period of time, we realised that our consumer needed a larger range of products from us. This is when we decided to partner with small and marginal farmers to bring their produce to the store as well. Market access has always been a big challenge for farmers, especially small farmers. A local market (mandi) considers no difference between organic or non-organic produce, and can fetch you only the mandi rates. As an organic farmer, you lose out. With our direct to consumer approach, small farmers have a window to get better rates.
We now have a two-fold motive with local farmers. The first is to provide better market access to farmers who practice organic farming. The second is to disseminate information about regenerative farming methodology. Advait Living is currently working with organic farmers having less than 2 hectares of land in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
For more you can follow us at @advait_living_farms