Friday, 18 May 2012

Class XI Students grow and market mushrooms on their own

Twelve city boys toiled on the field to grow mushrooms, took the produce to the market, scouted for potential buyers and negotiated with them, all the while maintaining accounts — this is no FarmVille but a real-life project involving Class XI students of The Heritage School.
The project, which was initially rejected by the principal, has yielded 60kg of oyster mushrooms from the first harvest besides training the 16-17-year-olds in real-life entrepreneurial skills.
“I had turned them down, saying ‘I do not want you all to produce poisonous mushrooms’ but the students were at it and kept asking for money to start. I asked them to apply for a loan from the school, which got sanctioned,” said principal Seema Sapru.
The school authorities sanctioned a loan of 26,000 and provided a patch of land on the premises for which the boys had to pay a rent. The students were even asked to pay for the petrol when the school bus took them for two days of training at Ramakrishna Ashram Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Nimpith.
The boys have spent Rs 16,000 till now and earned Rs 7,000. “We know it is not just the principal that we have to repay but the interest as well. We had learnt about it in our accounts classes but realised the practical implications during the project,” said Yashwardhan Killa, one of the participants.
“First, we need to break even and pay back our loan. Profit will come only after that,” said Uday Choudhury.
Work on the project took off in July, when a plan was drawn out and capital arranged. A hunt was launched for a suitable farming site within the school premises in August. “Just any empty space would not have done because mushroom requires a certain temperature and a humid climate. We needed a muddy patch,” said Raghav Bagri. “Initially, we thought we would get readymade infrastructure in the school but that did not happen and our cost escalated because the infrastructure had to be created.”
The boys engaged labourers to erect a bamboo structure on the 30ftx6ft x7ft plot that had to be covered with plastic sheets to ensure the right temperature and humidity level. The students, with the help of the labourers, dug a pit where the rice straw required for cultivation was soaked in water.
Farming began in November. “The rice straw has to be soaked in water, sterilised and then dried in the sun. The straw must remain moist but there should not be too much water,” said Santanu Bose, commerce teacher.
The exacting process continued — the plastic was removed and water sprinkled twice or thrice a day, depending on the weather. The first harvest was done after 20 days and the next harvest in another month. “Usually, one cultivation yields three harvests. In the third harvest, the quantity goes down drastically,” said Subroto Dey, another commerce teacher.
The legwork for marketing started in August and continues with the students visiting department stores to sell their produce. Some of the mushrooms was bought by the teachers and the school canteen but, for the rest, the boys went from shop to shop. “We went to Foodbazar in Rajarhat and they asked to see the sample. They offered to buy it at Rs 20 for 200 grams. The buyers want to make more profit because we are students. We will negotiate with them because we cannot sell it at so low a price. What will our profit be then?” Yashwardhan said.
At the Spencer’s outlet in South City Mall, the boys were turned away because they did not have a trading licence. “We have spoken to our principal to find out what can be done about this,” Raghav said.
“They did the market survey all by themselves. We did not help them with sources or contacts because we wanted them to understand the market trend, the saleability of their product and the formalities involved after cultivation. That is real-life skill training,” Dey said.
“Before starting the project, we were not convinced about the viability, but after market research we found out that it was an emerging market in Calcutta,” Uday said.
City schools have undertaken innovative projects such as the no-horn campaign at La Martiniere for girls and boys and park clean-up by Modern High School girls but Heritage is the first to engage students in farming. The exercise is a part of the British Council’s Teach a Man to Fish project and Heritage is the only city school and one of the four in the country to take part.
Former principal of St James’ School, John Mason, said such practical projects offer real-life learning. “Any school that gives children the opportunity to learn on their own under controlled conditions is wonderful.”
Moitrayee Roy, a former headmistress of Patha Bhavan, said: “The project introduces students to agriculture and to a process from where they can make profits and not go after industrialisation alone.”

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