Faced with the vagaries of nature, low yield and inconsistent quality, a section of guava farmers in Allahabad are shifting to banana cultivation

One of the most common myths surrounding the guava is that it triggers cold. That is why some people avoid it during winter. But that’s that for the hypochondriacs. The guava has a much more nuanced liaison with cold weather.

As a matter of fact, one of the finest selection of the fruit — the Allahabadi guavas — actually blossom under the chill, though the sandy loam soil also has a big role to play. The cold climate not only neutralises the threat of disease and pests, it also enriches its popular variety — Surkha, commonly known as the red guava due to its apple-red exterior and light pink flesh. The demand for the Surkha shoots up during winter.

For the record, the guava plant usually has three flushes: monsoons, winter and spring. “During monsoons,” explains Anil Dube, a district horticulture department official, “the guavas are susceptible to insects and usually have hard seeds. The rapid fluctuation in temperature provides suitable conditions for the growth of fungi.” On the other hand, a warm climate ripens the fruit much before its time, leaving behind a spread of premature, soft guavas. Naturally, the market for such fruits is scarce.

For the farmers, this is where the winter comes in. However, despite the chill, the amount and period of rainfall during the monsoons does have a bearing on the produce in winter. According to the farmers, the heavy showers this time delayed their plantations, with some like 65-year-old Ram Tripal claiming that he could only manage a single flush. He is definitely not too happy. “It’s [the good produce] almost half this year. I have been selling off the bulk at a lesser rate to avoid wastage. Fruits worth 30 days of sale are ready much before, in half the time. There is no option but to dispose them.”

Another element that hampers quality produce, despite the cold, is fog — a common feature in much of north India. It hinders photosynthesis and backed by other factors, also causes the guava to fall prematurely. Due to this, the Surkha becomes less attractive in the market, simply because the redder they are the quicker they sell. The other varieties, such as the Safeda and Patta, might not suffer as much. The farmers also have to contend with the crop destroying Nilgai or blue antelope.

According to vendors and farmers at Mundera Mandi, a large market on the eastern fringes of the city, while the quantity of the produce has been less affected this year, the quality has been inconsistent.

Ram das, 50, a farmer, has been compelled to sell off in bulk a portion of his quality produce. “The fruits fall before time or soften fast. They rot if we do not dispose them. Normally, I sell a bucket for Rs. 150. But the low quality ones do not fetch more than Rs. 80-100.”

Over the years, due to these factors, banana cultivation has replaced guavas in some areas. “Their lack of knowledge about the threats to guava, such as drying of the plant, white worms (jurai) or black ants and the relatively better produce of bananas might be the reason,” reckons Mr. Dube. “One bigha of banana cultivation fetches up to Rs. one lakh of profit, while guavas only about Rs. 35,000-60,000. We regularly recommend them to spray urea in the summer itself and also list out other precautions.”

But the farmers are already hurting by the high cost of fertilisers and increased labour wage. Nevertheless, to ensure that quality and quantity of produce are improved, the department has initiated the technique of ‘dense planting’. This means that 1,111 plants can now be grown over an area of five hectares against the previous figure of 277. Though this means that individual canopies will be smaller and per-plant production less, the overall production shoots up. The shorter plants ensure that quality fruits are picked while also saving labour power.

“This technique has entered its third year. Only at the end of it we can judge how successful it has been. But going by what we see, it looking good,” says Mr. Dube.