Grow­ers ex­per­i­mented with cash crops to reap wind­fall prof­its

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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

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