The Tons Valley is nestled in eastern Uttarakhand, bordering the states of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. High grasslands, dense coniferous and deodar forests, the white water of the Tons River (a tributary of the Yamuna) and scenic views of the Garhwal range of the Himalayas have brought many tourists and trekkers to the Tons Valley and its smattering of villages. Like most places sheltering in the lap of the Himalayas, the Tons Valley (pronounced ‘tawns’, rhyming with ‘fawns’) also boasts some spectacular produce, most notably crisp, red apples from the orchards that dot the hillsides of the valley.
‘The Tons Valley borders Kinnaur, which is famous for its apples,’ says Shubhra Chatterji, who runs the Tons Valley Shop along with her partner, Anand Sankar. ‘We are a bit higher up from Kinnaur, so the apples from here are just as good, if not a bit better, but less well-known.’ Founded in 2020, the Tons Valley Shop is an online store that sells a range of mountain produce, such as apples, rajma, mountain garlic—even ghee—to cities and towns across the country.
The initiative started primarily as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The near-overnight imposition of a lockdown meant that tourism came to an abrupt halt in the Tons Valley, drying up the flow of money that the communities in the valley depended on. Among these residents was photojournalist-turned-social-entrepreneur Anand Sankar, who had spent the last seven years building up an eco-travel business and an NGO (the Kalap Trust) in the remote village of Kalap. ‘There was a real sense that a disaster was waiting to happen,’ says Sankar of the pandemic’s early days.
Most conversation at the time centred around money and ways to generate income for the village, Chatterji says. ‘We held some fundraisers online and sourced seeds for the women of the community to supplement their kitchen gardens, but these were one-offs. What the community really needed was a stable source of money.’
Sensing an opportunity to help their neighbours, Sankar and Chatterji began selling the apples via social media. They started with a modest target of selling 1,000 kilos of apples, at an average of Rs 250 per kilo. By the time the season was done, they had sold more than 25,000 kilos.
At first, the logistics of running the Tons Valley Shop were incredibly daunting, Sankar remembers. ‘We were personally going around in pickup trucks, visiting 30–40 villages, meeting the farmers and getting the produce,’ he says. ‘Back then, there was no website, no online shop—everything was being run off social media and our phones. I remember during one period I took 1,500 orders personally through WhatsApp.’
Strong community ties were essential to the early success of the Tons Valley Shop, to efficiently match producers with the orders that were coming in. Luckily, Sankar’s previous experience working with the Kalap Trust had primed him for this new role with the Tons Valley Shop. Thanks to the work he did with the trust, Sankar had spent most of his time since he moved to the Tons Valley in 2013 working alongside the community to develop livelihoods, alongside his ecotourism business. Although the Kalap Trust’s activities were shuttered indefinitely at the start of the pandemic, the relationships remained. Those same ties allowed the Tons Valley Shop to reach a wide network of food growers around them. The store exited the apple harvest season of 2020 in September with a list of about 1,500 customers.
As in most small communities, news of Sankar and Chatterji’s success spread through the valley, and before long, local farmers began approaching them to sell other produce, including rajma and walnuts. ‘It was Shubhra’s idea to branch out into different food products,’ says Sankar. ‘She was the one who saw the golden opportunity that our customer list represented.’ Building a bridge between farmers and the people who consume the food they grow soon became the Tons Valley Shop’s key proposition.
Chatterji, who is also an accomplished food writer, television producer and film-maker, handles the social media and marketing for the Tons Valley Shop. ‘We put the farmer at the centre of the story. Every box we sent out had the name of the farmer who grew the apples, for example. We sold the majority of our produce via social media, and we regularly did live videos on Instagram featuring the people who grow the food we sell. Especially in those early days, this was a very new way to connect with where one’s food comes from, and people responded to it very well.’
Comb through their Instagram account and you’ll see produce ranging from organic apricots and heirloom mountain potatoes to dried apple slices and rhododendrons. There are regional recipes from women in the village, photos of trees laden with apples, pears and oranges, even glimpses of local festivals and cultural events, with the Himalayas looming in the background.
Before long, a community of customers too coalesced around the produce from the Tons Valley. ‘We had people sharing recipes of what to do with the apples,’ Chatterji recalls. ‘Everything from pickles and chutneys to baked goods—all of it was being shared.’ It was this response that led to the launch of the Tons Valley Shop website on 23 October 2020.
Today, the Tons Valley Shop stocks a wide variety of seasonal and perennial produce: multiple varieties of wheat and rajma, mountain ghee from cows fattened on the lush grass of Himalayan meadows, garlic that’s been grown and dried on the slopes of the Tons Valley, a selection of nuts and grains, as well as some processed food, like millet flour, turmeric powder and other masalas and spices.
Most of the produce is available year round but is collected during the fall, after processing (usually drying or powdering) is finished. ‘Our procurement season is usually around November, when we travel from village to village over an area of approximately 100sq. km, visit 370-odd farmers and pick up what they’ve grown,’ says Sankar.
All the produce comes to the Tons Valley Shop’s warehouse via mule and pickup truck, where seasonal workers clean and package the items. From there, the produce is sent 200km away, to the nearest courier hub in Dehradun, and then onwards to the rest of India.
A New Model
‘Farmers are used to the concept of selling their goods wholesale, for a fixed price that is usually low,’ Sankar explains. During apple season, for example, farmers pay seasonal workers to pick their crop, then pay to have it transported to the wholesale market, where it is sold. From these wholesale markets, the produce is sorted, cleaned, transported to cities and towns, and finally sold to retail customers. This is the model used by most food growers across India, and one in which food growers receive the least returns.
Because the prices farmers receive is relatively low, the focus is on selling large volumes to break even. But Sankar believes that farmers could make a lot more by focusing on only the best quality produce. ‘The biggest cost for the farmer is the logistical cost,’ explains Sankar. ‘They stand to earn a lot more if they sell 50 boxes of great apples at Rs2,500 a box, rather than 100 boxes of average-quality apples at Rs1,200,’ he says. ‘It’s less work for them. They need to hire fewer workers come harvest time, and the prices they can command are far higher.’ Providing this sort of ‘market intelligence’, as Sankar describes it, is a crucial part of the role played by the Tons Valley Shop. It is also critical for small producers, as it provides the opportunity to earn more than subsistence-level income.
In addition, Sankar and Chatterji have also been giving them feedback from the customers. ‘With rajma, we’re recommending varieties that are more popular,’ he explains. ‘With garlic, we’re trying to procure better qualities of seed and teach growers basic preservation practices, like drying and storage, so that they have more to sell and wastage is reduced.’ They’ve also encouraged farmers to start keeping track of all their costs via a diary, which will provide a clear idea of their break-even point.
Running a business in a remote mountain community is tough, especially when your customers aren’t local. But the biggest issues that the Tons Valley Shop faces are systemic rather than geographical. Without access to loans from the government or financial institutions to buy seeds, fertiliser and other inputs, farmers are reliant on whatever money Sankar and Chatterji can provide as an advance against their harvests. Because the Tons Valley Shop is a small business, the advance doesn’t always cover all the costs, which means farmers end up growing less than they could.
The Tons Valley Shop is testament to the good that can be achieved when a community comes together and pools its resources, but it also highlights the ways in which our greater food systems need to change to better support food growers.
The Tons Valley Shop offers a range of mountain produce, from fresh apples, pears, and apricots to dried rajma, whole tuvar dal, and local condiments such as bhanjira pisyun-loon (a spiced salt made with perilla seeds). Visit tonsvalley.shop to place an order; they deliver across India.