If you think farming is all about ploughing the fields in a dhoti and eating packed lunch under a tree, then think again.
Hariharan V is one such farmer who is pursuing an MBA degree at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C). From a small village in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, this 25-year old is at IIM-C because he is alarmed by the way the business of agriculture -- the foundation of India's economy -- actually works.
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He finds it bothersome that middlemen and market fluctuations play a bigger role in the life of an ordinary farmer than annual seasons and weather tantrums. After completing his engineering in 2007 followed by a short stint with a software firm, Hariharan realised that there was nothing better than the farming business in India and is thus pursuing an MBA to exhilarate the agro-industry.
Hariharan and his family own some nine acres of land in Tamil Nadu. Of this, 5 acres is used to grow vegetables and the rest yields flowers. Vegetables is their traditional produce, but it is only lately that Hariharan and his family dived into flower farming. Last year (2010-11) the family made about Rs 5,50,000 in profit.
Ever since Hariharan decided to pursue an MBA degree, he has been fielding the question -- Why MBA? Everybody expected him to simply toe the family line. But the young farmer had other plans. Mixing business education with farming knowledge would help him understand the sector better -- or so he feels.
"An MBA will help me understand the business dynamics, complexities involved and actual opportunities the industry can provide. The knowledge, ideas gathered and interaction with students, professors, alumni and industry people will broaden my spectrum using which I will be able to integrate farming with business ideas," he says when anyone asks him the question.
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Hariharan's restless mind never stops thinking about how to change things in the farming business. Ever since he began helping his father in the fields years ago, he has had the yearning to do things differently and to be able to reap more profits in a sustainable way.
"I saw a huge potential in agriculture as the demand for food was increasing throughout the world and the prices of agricultural commodities were also increasing and sustaining for longer periods -- all this made me give the the whole process a thought," the MBA student said.
For years together, Hariharan and his family concentrated on growing vegetables -- tomatoes, brinjal, onions and lady-fingers mostly.
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"But we faced severe losses due to improper planning and market fluctuations. There were other factors which crippled the day-to-day operations and it took me time to get used to these realities," recalled Hariharan.
In a bid to figure out the source of the problems, Hariharan did some detailed research and study on the subject. He describes his research:
"I carefully observed the markets, the factors affecting them and then selected the crops, adjusting the timing of the cycle to ensure a nominal price for the produce. I then improved the net output and reduced the input cost using quality ideas, judicious use of fertilizers and organic manure and implementation of technology to optimise water usage, reduce manual labour and improve the quality of the produce.
"I realised that conventional farming was not sustainable and started practising sustainable agricultural practices and also made efforts to move towards organic farming without a decrease in the quantity of the output. My strategy was to have a constant source of income throughout the year, so I decided to cultivate flowers as their price was stable and the profit margin was also high.
"This gave me the leverage to take risks on vegetables which were prone to high market fluctuations and I learned in due course that if planned and timed properly the returns could be manifold. However the variables involved were too many and the data available to take informed decisions too low."
Hariharan realised that if proper guidance and support was given to farmers, one could expect a total turnaround of India's agricultural scene.
"This will also attract young talent towards farming which in turn will give rise to new ideas," he added. He believes that agriculture poses a plethora of opportunities and this is the best time to capitalise on it, and that can only be done with the support of the government and entrepreneurs.
"The presence of middlemen in the farming processes of our country is the main reason why farmers get much less than is due to them."
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Hariharan also believes that the marketing of agri-produce needs to be increased heavily. When asked whether cash crops were the way to go for farmers to get rich, Hariharan replied that cash crops were profitable for farmers and more would shift towards them as the demand for fodder and alternative fuel increases.
"But assisting farmers with quality inputs, data, developing hybrid varieties which suit local conditions to improve the productivity and profitability of the traditional crops is something that needs to be done on an urgent basis and to the entire spectrum of farming, whether big or small," he said.
So if the solutions are already known, then Why MBA?
"I want to turn the sector organised from the 'unorganised' fashion in which it functions presently," he said.
"I do not want agriculture to stagnate at a particular level. Farming is prospering and so are the subsidiary industries. With the help of an MBA I will be able to contribute to the farming community as a whole."
Does he give farming tips to classmates?
Years of toiling on the field (literally) is helping Hariharan in his classroom. Now that he has learnt to solve problems on the field -- he takes the same endowment to class.
"I am able differentiate the way in which I worked and how the successful organisations work and from it I am learning new ways to approach things in a systematic way," he said.
About his classmates, many of whom may have never stepped on a fertile field, he admits that most students do not have the slightest clue about farming. "Or about the problems faced by farmers, not even the opportunities agriculture provides. I try to educate them on the current farming scenario in India and to some extent globally."
Why not an MBA in agri-management?
"No," Hariharan is quick to answer. "My learnings would have been restricted to a particular field and my knowledge about business in other sectors would have been curtailed. I wanted to learn management as a whole, and to be able to apply what I have learnt on the field to practical business problems."
While Hariharan attends classes at IIM-C, his family still works on the fields in his hometown. After graduation, Hariharan hopes to join them not only as a 'farmer' but also as someone who can change the family fortunes -- who can help reap not only vegetables and flowers but also profits and that too in a systematic and methodical fashion.