Shubha reaps 'Red Gold' worth lakhs sans land or water

Shubha with Ankit's wife Manjeri. Photo: Manorama.

At 63, Shubha Bhatnagar's life carries the mystic, sensuous smell of saffron, even as her peers consider the age as the beginning of their sunset years.
Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh-based Bhatnagar is an example of curiosity and determination surpassing age. The sexagenarian has proved that age is no bar for acquiring knowledge.

Bhatnagar had been toying with the idea of launching a new venture for the betterment of rural women. Her family reacted in shock initially but stood by her as she stood firm. It marked the beginning of Shubhavni, a portmanteau of her name and Avni, her grandchild.
She knew the condition of rural women. Many of them could not even educate their children due to the want of money. The financial situation at many homes forced children to take up jobs at a tender age.
Seeing the children toil pained Bhatnagar, a post-graduate in Hindi. When she decided to launch a venture, she wanted it to benefit the women around her, and better their lives.

From mushroom to saffron
Bhatnagar initially grew mushrooms, but later decided to diversify and chose saffron. The demand-supply gap and scant production of the Red Gold variety led her to saffron farming. She knew that once successful, the profit would be in lakhs.
However, it was easier said than done, she soon realised. A lack of reliable information on saffron farming was the major obstacle. To learn from the farmers, Bhatnagar soon reached Kashmir, where saffron is grown. She met around 30 farmers and acquired first-hand knowledge about saffron farming. She even procured the necessary seeds from Kashmir.

Kashmir's climate is conducive to growing saffron. Bhatnagar's next challenge was to re-create such an atmosphere in Uttar Pradesh. She understood that growing them on soil could lead to multiple issues.
Pests, the difference in temperature, and the possibility of animals destroying the crops were the major issues. Considering these issues, Bhatnagar decided to opt for the cold storage method to grow saffron.
Her husband Sanjeev Bhatnagar's cold storage business came in handy for the determined woman. She spent months studying various farming methods before zeroing in on the apt one. She learned about the indoor aeroponic method.

Bhatnagar collected a decade's data on Kashmir's saffron harvest to learn about the suitable temperature and light intensity for growing the spice. The cold storage lacked the required dampness. Regulating the temperature necessary for the seeds to sprout was a tough task.
Hence, she regulated the temperature and light on racks and found suitable conditions for the seeds to sprout.
Bhatnagar follows organic farming, keeping pesticides away. The aeroponics method avoided the need for irrigation. Additionally, her method did not need land to grow saffron. Her son Ankit said aeroponics is most suitable for farming saffron since it prevents soil and air-borne diseases.

Safe farming
Ankit, a software engineer in Bengaluru, and his wife Manjeri, also an engineer, helped Bhatnagar in realising her dream. They learnt about the technology to be used in saffron farming. Ankit, who is now working from home, helps his mother in farming. The family has employed the Internet of Things possibility in their endeavour.
The Bhatnagars said indoor farming is safe. Global warming has affected saffron cultivation, and the fields in Kashmir have shrunk significantly. Several Kashmiri farmers have now turned to indoor farming, which could be the future of agriculture.
The indoor farming method shields the crops from natural calamities, climate change and pests, besides preventing excessive use of land and water. Since indoor farming is unaffected by global warming, it is likely to be a prominent method in the future.

India needs to produce more
Though expensive, the demand for saffron is on an upswing in the country. Bhatnagar opined that more people should tap this opportunity. She said she has been getting enquiries on saffron farming from several places, including Kerala.
India is second in the world in terms of land usage for growing saffron. However, its contribution to the global saffron market is a mere seven per cent. Iran, the largest producer, contributes 88 per cent. This gulf denotes India has a long way to go to tap the potential of the market.
Bhatnagar said the production should be ramped up since there is a huge demand, including from foreign countries. She is planning to expand the cold storage room to 1,200 square feet from the present 560 square feet. Additionally, it should be made a livelihood for rural women.

Once upon a time
India's character is patriarchal. It was once upon a time, Bhatnagar said. Women are now educated and have equalled — if not bettered — men in several fields. Bhatnagar, who has provided livelihood for 25 women has a message: Women should not belittle themselves.
Bhatnagar is happy that she has accomplished her mission of providing a decent job and revenue to rural women. Women could be self-reliant by becoming financially stronger. A housewife-turned-entrepreneur, Bhatnagar, underlines that a self-reliant woman will be a role model for her children.
Bhatnagar could be contacted for farm-related enquiries over the website, 

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