Growers experimented with cash crops to reap windfall profits
Prompted by the falling profits from the traditional commodities, farmers increasingly turned to cultivation of exotic varieties, which have markets outside India. Vanilla, one of the costliest spices in the international market became the new favourite of Kerala farmers. In 2003, fresh vanilla
beans fetched a mind-boggling ` 4,000 per kg due to a slump in the global supply. A cyclone had destroyed vanilla farms in Madagascar, the world’s top exporter of the spice. That year, police stations in many parts of the state received unusual complaints of vanilla beans and even the entire plants being stolen. Many vanilla farmers pressed private security agents into service in their farms. As expected, the boom ended in three to four years when Madagascar recouped.The prices of vanilla beans in Kerala crashed to ` 80.
By that time, rubber had recovered from the price slump and its price had started galloping. In 2005, rubber started spreading everywhere, even into the high ranges of Wayanad in the Western Ghats and low-lying areas of Alappuzha, a coastal district, where agro-climatic conditions are not suited for the tree. People cleared coconut plantations and paddy farms to grow rubber. Excellent extension services by the Rubber Board helped. Coconut, a major cash crop in the state, and tapioca, a tuber widely eaten in Kerala, lost much of their area to rubber. In 2010 alone coconut lost about 8,000 ha to rubber, the state agriculture department’s data shows.By 2011,rubber accounted for 45 per cent of Kerala’s agricultural gdp.
The good time continued till 2012-13,when the prices of commodities crashed again.
Just like rubber growers, cardamom farmers in Idukki are in severe distress. Price of cardamom that had jumped to ` 1,600 a kg in 2010 crashed to ` 450 within two years.By January 14 this year, the price had risen to a measly ` 680 a kg. “Traders are importing low quality cardamom from Guatemala, mixing them with the high quality local variety, and selling in the domestic and global markets under the brand of Indian cardamom,” says K S Mathew, president, Cardamom Growers Association, Idukki. This brought bad name to Kerala cardamom, which has lost its traditional markets, including Saudi Arabia, the largest importer of the spice, he adds.
Coffee growers in Wayanad, a major coffee cultivating area in the state, are in deep distress over the declining price of the premium Robusta coffee and erratic rainfall during the harvesting season.The spot price of raw coffee in the district on January 3 was ` 3,750 for a bag of 54 kg as against
` 4,400 a month ago—a drop of nearly 15 per cent in a month. The price of coffee beans declined from
` 145 a kg to ` 128 during the period. This will seriously affect the coffee growers, about 70 per cent of whom are small cultivators with a landholding less than five hectares.
Small tea growers in Wayanad are also a worried lot. The spot price of green leaves on January 3 was
` 8 a kg against ` 13 in the corresponding period last year. As per Wayanad Small-Scale Tea Growers Association, 12,000 small growers depend on tea for their livelihood in this district. As there is no public sector tea processing factory, tea growers are forced to sell their produce to agents from Tamil Nadu for much lower prices.
Coconut is still not doing well despite 30 agencies working to promote coconut culture and helping farmers earn more from it. Even when all these agencies were working towards coconut development, coconut lost much of its area to rubber. The price remained very low at ` 10 a kg for many years. Recently, it rose to ` 30 a kg due to a reduction in production. As for the cashew sector, it has already started showing signs of an impending crisis. Last year India exported cashew nuts worth ` 5,000 crore. This year, in the first quarter, production has reduced
by 20 per cent and price has fallen by six per cent.
Growers in Kerala are now looking up to another crop: oil palm. Many paddy fields that have remained uncultivated for several years and coconut farms are being converted into oil palm farms in pockets of central Kerala. Promotional programmes initiated by Oil Palm Development Programme, sponsored by the Central and state governments, are acting as a catalyst to the new revolution on the farm front. Farmers are once again hopeful.
“If the rubber price remains low for long, we will cut the trees and plant oil palm,” says Kurien Verghese. Since most growers in Kerala have small landholdings, Verghese says growing oil palm individually will not be profitable. He plans to join other farmers to grow the crop as a group.
Most tea gardens in Kerala are old. Growers are reluctant to replant the gardens both during price boom and price crash