Postcard from Mandi
Our ongoing Interview Series explores the hidden world of fragrance and flavor through conversations with distillers, suppliers of rare extracts, perfumers, scientists and artists. We also expand the scope of our conversations by surveying the impact of shutdowns on small farms and farming communities that are connected to larger manufacturers going up the global supply chain.
This week we spoke to Mr. Bharat Mohan of Natural Biotech Products, a family run company with sister units Hari Industries, Sant Bhama Enterprises and Himalayan Herbal Extracts.
At the end of March 2019, perfumer Madhavi Patel (Rishi Veda) and I visited Himachal Pradesh to meet our friend and distiller of Himalayan oils, Bharat Mohan (Partner at Natural Biotech). After a number of conversations online, we planned a trip to visit the family-owned distillation firm in Mandi (5 + hours by road from Chandigarh). We were there to understand the extraction processes for juniper, pine, cedarwood, ambrette seed, calamus, valerian and the very rare and precious perfumery botanical, costus root. Bharat Mohan took us through each distillation unit, showed us their forest conservation efforts, sustainable initiatives and their seed-to-farm protocols. A year on, I checked in with Bharat about the impact of the pandemic on their farms, supply chain and distillation business.
Bharti Lalwani: What steps has Natural Biotech taken for the lockdown, and what does that mean for the distillation processes in the coming months?
Bharat Mohan: Since our production is closed, movement of goods is held up so no new raw materials like Costus Roots, Calamus Roots, Valerien Roots, Juniper Berries, Angelica Roots are coming to us at present. However, at their end, farmers are collecting raw materials and drying them so that they can be supplied once lock down opens. All these botanicals I mentioned have to be dried first before distillation in any case so we are not badly affected yet.
We have applied to the District Magistrate for permission to operate as our district doesn’t have any Covid 19 cases so hopefully we would begin production this week of 21st April once permissions are approved. All our employees already have Health Insurance since we are covered under Employees’ state Insurance Corporation of India (ESIC). We have ordered for Infrared thermometers so that way we can monitor our workforce each day. We have placed hand wash and sanitizer at all entry and exit points and common areas. We’ve also provided our employees with disposable masks and gloves.
BL: What does this situation mean for the upcoming harvest season?
BM: We may have an issue with perishable crops – As winter turns to spring, the Himachal region receives excessive rainfall, so if seasonal crops such as calamus, costus, juniper leaf, Himalayan rose, lavender, ambrette seeds are not collected on time, there will be damage and loss.
Currently, distillation of cultivated rose has already begun at farmer level and overseen by GOVT Institutes in Himalayan region, while the wild rose isn’t being harvested this year due to restrictions so that will be a big loss as total production would go down by 30-40% .
Cultivated lavender fields are being taken care of by farmers – this week they are removing weeds that grow along with the crop. Lavender is ready to be harvested by early June for distillation so that will likely go ahead as planned.
BL: You supply oils to some major companies around the world – do you anticipate the demand to drop or price inflations?
BM: No drop, infact, because of the current scenario, there is a demand for natural oils of Cedarwood, Juniper Berry, Valerian Root and Calamus Oil as most of these oils are anti-fungal and meant for medicinal formulations. We have a lot of pending orders to fulfill for our global and local clients who are typical fragrance and flavour manufacturers. Once transportation opens up this week, we will see stock movement as our extracts are required by various industries that create health and hygiene products.
What will be affected by this pandemic is the luxury fine fragrance sector. Naturally, people won’t be looking for luxury in the short term. This directly affects us as we do supply major companies involved in the fragrance trade. So, yes we do expect a significant loss of business – just one way to illustrate this loss is by highlighting the point of sales for luxury perfumes which happens at airports, high end boutiques, shops located in hotels, malls and all such sites that will not see footfall over the next few months.
BL: Give us an idea of how many farms are sustained as a result of your distillation business.
BM: Directly and indirectly, we sustain around 300 farms spread across the Western Himalayan region managed by approximately 2000 farmers who are connected to us for supplying raw materials for distillation. Apart from cultivating such botanicals, they also grow traditional crops like rice, wheat, tomatoes, cauliflower, etc. Then there are fruit crops like apples, walnuts, almond, rhododendron and guava.
BL: Tell us about how your family firm has been providing relief to your employees and farmers.
BM: We are providing our employees salary 100 % (70 employees) for all the duration of lock down and money has been provided to some farmers well in advance as they required support during this crucial time. One good thing about Himachal in general is there is not much poverty here, people are very much self sufficient. At the local level we have a medical college to which we have donated 100 PPE kits together with the Rotary club and we have provided food supplies (rice, flour, pulses, vegetables) to the under-privileged. We hope to continue doing our best for everyone.
Update 22/April/2020: As of today our operations have begun. We commenced by disinfecting all the units and established standard operating procedures. At the beginning and end of each day, employees will have their temperature checked with infra red thermometers.