Farm to table milk with Pankaj Navani of Binsar FarmsIndrojit D. Chaudhuri
Managing a herd of 240 cows, of which 120 are milking ones, and supplying farm-to-table milk to over 600 families in Delhi has driven in a lot of patience to the 40-year-old Partner and Founder of Binsar Farms, Pankaj Navani.
An idealist, Pankaj had forever envisioned working with communities while growing up under the folds of his grandfather in a small village near Binsar in Uttaranchal.”My grandfather worked for the betterment of the village Gawani in Pokhara Block and had set up three primary, one Kanyavidyalas, one intermediate, and one degree college there”,tells Pankaj. Over the years, he ingrained a sense of community and ownership because of his grandfather’s unconditional involvement in such work. This sense of belonging and responsibility has stayed with Pankaj as he continues taking his grandfather’s legacy forward, albeit in his own style.It was at Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology that Pankaj met the future co-founders of Binsar Farms, Deepak and Sukhvinder, both 35, who were interning under him. The journey of what is a now Binsar Farms began in 2009, during a trek to a hillock in Binsar. “Sukhvinder, Deepak, and I lost our way during our descent from the hillock and we were greeted by a kind goatherd who offered his hut to spend the night before directing us the next day morning on to the correct path,” tells Pankaj of what seems like a fairy tale. For, this was the turning point, when the three of them, having seen the tribulations of the goatherd, decided to do something for the people of Uttaranchal. “The first thought that came to us was to pick up lentils from the hills and sell in the plains and gradually form a cooperative with members from the neighbouring villages who could supply us with lentils, fruits, grains, etc., which are more healthier and nourishing than the ones grown in the plains,” reveals Pankaj. The trio were still attached to their respective jobs. On the side they began working towards realising their dream. This continued till 2011, when two things happened. One, being the election year, wherever they went with their idea, everybody (at the village level) was supportive of the plan and two, Pankaj travelled to New Zealand on an assignment while working with DELL. “Whenever any of us travelled, our objective was also to study the local practices related to farming, etc. While in New Zealand, I had the good fortune of meeting Earl Rattray, who was the Founding Director of Fonterra Dairy Group and was now in an advisory role with them. A hearty interaction with him led me to share the Uttaranchal story,” says Pankaj. Hearing the passionate narrative, Earl agreed to come on board as Partner/Investor to work towards shaping Binsar Farms into a reality.
Since the ruling party was ousted in the elections, all people and promises of help practically disappeared overnight. People went back on their promises and the trio realised that their vision of breaking the traditional supply routes and overcoming the nexus of the middlemen was futile. Therefore, the out-of-hope Pankaj and team started to wonder about their new modus operandi. This is when Earl, with his vast experience in managing dairy, suggested they get into dairy business. And in 2012, Pankaj, Deepak, Sukhvinder, and Earl formed Binsar – with equal partnership ratio. The name Binsar means dawn and is also symbolic of the village where their journey started.
Both Deepak and Sukhvinder’s families also had deep roots with communities. While Sukhvinder’s ancestors are credited as founding fathers of communism in India, Deepak’s father a landowner near Sonepat, Haryana, offered 10 acres of his land on lease as he was of the opinion that the production should always be near to the market. “We acquired our first calf in October 2012 and started production soon after,” tells Pankaj. “With inputs on dairy management and techniques from Earl, Binsar Farms expect to have positive cash flows by this year,” he adds. “For example, we are also harvesting around 80 acres of land with fodder crops of maize, rye grass, sugarcane, New Zealand’s fodder turnips which are high on minerals for our cattle. These turnips are given just before the insemination season to produce healthy calves.” As part of community development vision, Pankaj elaborates
Of the 80 acres, we have leased 40 acres to five local farmers in our area, to whom we supply seeds, fertilisers, etc., and we buy back the harvest for our dairy use. The group of five farmers are now assured of regular income and are not worried about market fluctuations, which in turn has enabled them to plan other expenses like education for their families.
Of many other international standard practices in cattle care that Binsar Farms follows, Pankaj shares, “Fodder was our first concern. We feed more natural greens to our cattle, so for the main silage pit we devoted a lot of time designing its various aspects. We also instruct our farmers to not use any pesticides 21 days prior to harvesting of cattle fodder. For the cattle shed, we spent a great deal of energy and time on research, so we have no water logging or puddles of accumulated water, which unfortunately many dairy’s still have.” Pankaj continues, “Also, from the cow lameness point of view we only are at 1% while other dairies are at 12–13%. This is sad because when the cow is lame, she doesn’t turn up on the feed table as often. This results in weight loss leading to low milk production. Many Indian dairies for lack of knowledge and to reduce costs, have paved the entire shed with concrete, while we have included a kutcha base under the paved ground, thereby reducing the stress to the cow legs.” A substantial amount of their budget goes towards monitoring cow health and nutrition and they plan to eventually develop a market intelligence tool which they can share with other farmers.
Construction of another shed is on full swing at Binsar Farms to accommodate a total of 600 cows. Soon, Pankaj, Sukhvinder, and Deepak plan to start donating cows to the local farming families and share with them their knowledge and eventually buy back the milk from the farmers, after standardisation for sale to their customers. This will help additional revenue sources for the families, thereby having a positive impact on their lifestyle.
Binsar Farms is now working alongside 12 other dairy farm owners, in and around Haryana and Punjab, to create a cooperative and collect standardised produce (milk) and eventually products (ghee, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.). Pankaj elaborates,
At this stage, most small dairy owners we work with are a story like Binsar in themselves. Some of these farmers worked with big corporates, who now have small farms of 200 cows. Another businessman from Ambala who had a foundry earlier now has a dairy farm. Everybody has their own learning through trials, but with a cooperative, we aim to create a governing framework and all can come together and share their learning. In this manner, we will be able to pick the best practices and create standardised production facilities. In fact, we recently applied our techniques on another dairy farm and received 1,000 litres of milk. Although the inputs and quality of milk was same as Binsar, we had our own difficulties to match the tastes. We are now researching on it further to scale up the operation.
Coming from grounded middle class families, the trio are doing their bit in creating sustainable dairy farming practices. It is their strong belief that money will no longer be the motivating factor for the next generation. They feel this is the right time to realise individual passions and invest time building their dream and leave a better world for the next generation.