The French Farms
A piece of exotic meat for the chicken-devouring Indian
By Jacob Cherian and Sunaina Sehgal
Roger Langbour spent two
years on a farm in France
before running one on his own.
A few kilometres outside Delhi, off the highway leading to Jaipur, is The French Farms, a little green island that stands out amidst the vast rural landscape. Visitors to the farm are greeted with a warm smile—and workers donning at least one piece of clothing that makes them look, undeniably, a tad bit French. Even their mannerisms are different, and certainly unexpected, from an average Indian farmhand.
The lawns are manicured, and pathways brick-laid. To the right side of the drive-way is a duck pen. At the end of the path are two of his three Rottweiler dogs, standing guard. In fact, everything on the farm bears such a resemblance to the European countryside that you might even think you were somewhere there.
It seems that is exactly what its founder, Roger Langbour, had in mind when he built the eponymously-titled French Farms—a piece of land that would be a picture of his own country. There are pig pens that are as spic and span as schoolyards, green patches that produce vegetables that are usually found only at elite grocery stores in upmarket neighbourhoods, and workers who carry themselves with a sense of dignified humility that is not seen on domestic farms.
This little Isle de France is about 20 years old now. Langbour, who first moved to India in the mid-70s to serve in the French embassy, didn’t want to leave the country after he left his job in 1991. Then Langbour had an idea. During his long stay in the country, he had found it difficult to put good quality meat on his dining table. He still winces at the mention of the local meat market. “Have you been to INA market! It is filthy, and it has been like that for as long as I can remember,” he says.
So, he decided that things need not remain that way. If he could simply devise a way to manufacture the food products he loved, he might even find people who would want to buy them. And that is what he has done in the past two decades—fabricating an Indian version of the elite variety found back in France.
Before setting up a farm, Langbour went back to the French countryside to work on a farm and learn the techniques he would need to set up on his own. Despite being past his retirement age, Langbour laboured on the farms for two solid years like any other farmhand, ploughing fields, milking cows and, of course, tending to the ducks and pigs. In exchange, he gleaned as much as he could about their farming techniques, ate at their table and had a room of his own.
He flew back to India—and his Bengali wife—with this new inventory of skill sets. With the help of a friend, he bought three acres of land outside Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, and started out rearing Peking ducks. By the summer of 1994, he had made his first sale to the Hyatt Regency. French Farms had officially opened its gates. Today, the farm offers an assortment of ducks, quails, rainbow chickens, turkeys, pigs, guinea fowls and a whole range of vegetables.
The rise of French Farms, however, has been far from meteoric. Langbour has just about touched Rs 1 crore in turnover this year. Throughout his journey, he says, he has encountered the obstacles commonly faced by a small business owner, as well as the realities of dealing with workers, competition and government bodies of a developing country.
The shortage of electricity irks him, as well as the fact that industrial areas are given preference over agricultural areas. Electricity keeps his motors pumping water and also keeps thousands of young quails warm. “Electricity supply was better 15 years ago. Anywhere else in the world there would be a revolution because of this shortage,” he says, continuing, “it is also sad that the government doesn’t encourage organic farming. I haven’t used pesticides for 15 years.”
His aversion to pesticides, though ignored by the government, hasn’t escaped the eyes of his elite clientele who are ever delighted to find good meat products with an organic label.
French Farms is now reputed for its légumes organiques. Though the high-end price tag ensures the products remain only in the niche market, there is certainly no dearth of buyers. His clients include the growing expat community in the NCR region, and wealthy Indians, such as the Maharaja of Holkar and journalist-turned-media-tycoon, Prannoy Roy, he says. A delivery van traverses the NCR region thrice a week, dropping off meat and vegetables to households that have placed orders two days in advance. He also delivers to select commercial establishments—like Neemrana Hotels, Mrs Kaur’s and Ritu Dalmia’s Diva. The rest, he says, can deal with his distributor.
And this includes Indian five-star hotels, which, complains Langbour, “want international quality at local prices” and “constantly haggled for better rates and never paid on time”. Things are better now with a distributor in the middle. “I just deliver meat and collect the payment. I don’t have to chase the management of different hotels,” he says.
Along the way, he has met several people who have offered to plug in to his project. Others have offered to buy him out, if he just remained in charge. But Langbour has turned down all of them, to remain his own master.
Now in his late sixties, he’s still thinking of ways to take his business forward. His interests are shifting to a new product—mushrooms—which he wants to grow the green way.
“When it comes to spotting opportunities, you have to feel them. You need to forecast what people are headed towards,” says Langbour. This tastemaker clearly knows that if he has to find a sustainable niche, he needs more than a just a replica of a product—he needs great quality more than anything.