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Doctor didis’ creating social capital in rural Jharkhand

Often at family gatherings, the elders reminisce about their vacations in the villages — playing under the water pump, gulping down glasses of pure milk and relishing dishes made out of fresh produce from the farm. While a water pump is not exactly possible in an urban set-up, fresh produce is something many eco-warriors are trying to achieve through their kitchen gardens. But what about pure, unadulterated milk?
At a time when most of us are turning to packaged milk, city-based Astra Dairy Farms brought back the concept of selling pure cow’s milk packed in a glass bottle. This was a result of Ravindran’s dream of running an organic farm.

Upholding his father’s dream, Rakesh Ravindran, one of the directors of the company, talks to CE about being in the business for 12 years, and the road ahead.
Excerpts follow.

How did you venture into the dairy business?
We have been a textile manufacturing and export company for 45 years. My father, Ravindran, started this business out of passion in 2011. We just wanted to start an organic farm. For organic farming, we require manure, for which you require cows. When we began breeding cows, we thought of providing cow’s milk fresh from the farm. In 2012, we started bottling and delivering milk, within 12 hours of milking.

Shifting from the textile to the dairy business, what were the challenges?
There was a huge challenge because we didn’t know what the business was. Though we were not new to agriculture as most of our factories had small lands where we used to cultivate paddy, dealing with live animals, milking, etc., were the challenges. However, we overcame these as the years passed and learnt a lot about the industry.

What was the inspiration behind taking to organic farming?
Organic farming was something my father was keen on. Earlier, chemical fertilisers were very limited and people grew their vegetables. So, we wanted to do the same thing; wanted to be more natural. Fresh products without chemicals have their flavour, it’s different.

How have you grown over the decade?
When we started, we had close to 200 cows brought from Bengaluru. They were Holstein Friesian cows. But these cows were not adapting to our weather conditions. From yielding 20-25 litres of milk, gradually, they started yielding just 10-15 litres. The cows started panting too much, and some died. So then by 2015, we completely changed to Indian cows from a Gujarat breed called Kankrej that adapts well to our weather conditions. We also have a couple of Girs.

When we started selling milk, we had only one customer in Anna Nagar. We used to drive down almost 80 kilometres every day to deliver milk. That was the first challenge we had because many people are not planning to shift to fresh milk as they are used to processed milk. So there were a lot of leftovers, and we lost a lot of money. Then we started giving the milk to local societies thereby educating them about the product. Gradually we built a customer base. Before Covid, we had 3,000 odd customers and now we have around 2,500. We were also selling vegetables cultivated at the farm but had to stop because of the floods in 2015.

What are the products you sell?
Apart from fresh milk we also offer ghee, paneer, kulfi and curd. We make fresh paneer every day and they come in glass bottles with whey, which is full of protein and can be used in cooking. Our curd comes packed in earthen pots. This way we also support the local potters. We don’t use any plastics or plastic containers for packaging, except for kulfi as there is no other choice.
The glass bottles have to be returned by the customers. We wash, sterilise and reuse.

What is your USP?
Our USP, I would say is, we are not competing with any of these people (Those already in the market). We are not processing our milk. Ours is fresh milk; we are milking the cow, cooling the milk, packing it and delivering it. Whereas the others are being pasteurised or homogenised, or de-creamed. Our milk is untouched by hand. Our cows are fed with green fodder cultivated in-house, and even the distribution is done by us.

Tell us about your farm.
Our farm is located 70-75 km from Chennai near Gummidipoondi. At the farm, we have around 30 employees and 50-60 for distribution. We started associating with farmers to milk the cows provided by us. That way we are able to grow too. During the 2015 floods, we faced a setback as we had all the cows in one place. Before Covid, we also sold eggs, and till the floods hit, we were also selling vegetables. We do paddy cultivation too. From January 2023, we have started making and selling dosa and idli batter. The paddy we grow is stone ground and delivered fresh every day.

What are your learnings from the field?
When it comes to our business, customers feel our milk is very watery as we offer it in its natural state. Cow’s milk is watery and even when you make curd out of it, it will be watery and you will find whey in it. So customers feel we have added water to our products, but we don’t. This is because most of us have been used to packaged milk and have not been used to pure milk. This is one challenge we face but we try our best to convince the customers. We also have customers who have been with us for 12 years.

How do you keep yourself updated?
We are very well connected. One of our milking parlours is from Germany, and they set up the farm for us. We are very active in dairy associations and are aware of the upcoming things in dairy.

Do you visit the farm daily?
We visit once in a while and spend a couple of days there; we also have a place to stay inside the farm. Otherwise, we monitor. We have a team working there. We spend our days at the office mostly, working on new product lines and marketing.

What are your upcoming products?
We are working on a few things. Next up is Tellicherry pepper; we are associated with farmers in the Malabar region.

How do you choose the products to sell?
We believe we are into farming and dairy is part of farming. The products we introduce are all connected. For example, when the paddy is harvested, we use hay to feed the cows. We use the paddy to make the batter. Now pepper is also something which is used by everybody. We wanted to sell Telliccherry pepper, known to be one of the best peppers in the world.

Was delivery hit during the pandemic?
We didn’t stop our delivery during the pandemic. We fared well. Our team did a wonderful job. Our delivery boys took the risk but ensured our customers were served. Even during the Vardah cyclone we delivered. During the 2015 floods also, except for one day, we delivered.

What are your goals?
We wish to be present in the four states of south India, we are working towards that. We already had a store in Bengaluru as well, for a year. Unfortunately, because of Covid, we couldn’t take it forward. We were also trying to set up a farm there. But hopefully, maybe next year, we should try entering that as well.

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