An amnesiac Kerala may not be aware that the State’s first nutmeg farm, about 200 years old and privately owned, is riding into the sunset, having given way to real property development.
“Most of the trees on what was once a single entity of 18 acres, charmingly set on the banks of the Periyar on the outskirts of Kalady town, are about 200 years old,” said P. D. Zachariah, president of All Kerala Nutmeg Growers’ Association.
He is convinced that the property, with most of its trees running up to heights varying between 35 and 40 metres, is the oldest nutmeg plantation in Kerala.
His view is echoed by B. Krishnamoorthy, head of Crop Improvement Division of Spices Research Institute of India, Kozhikode, who has spent more than three decades researching nutmeg. Dr. Krishnamoorthy recalled that he had visited the farm as part of his studies and found the trees over 150 years old.
There is no disputing the age of these trees, he said but expressed surprise that the plantation was not being preserved as part of the State’s great spices heritage.
Former Angamaly MLA P.J. Joy said there was a plan to develop sites around Kalady as part of a UNDP-initiated spice tourism trail project linking locations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, the programme had come to a standstill and if it was revived something might have been done about preserving the historic nutmeg plantation in Kalady.
Those associated with what is now more than Rs.250-crore export business in nutmeg and mace are convinced that it is from Kalady that nutmeg cultivation spread to other parts of the State. The first batch of nutmeg plants were brought to Kerala from a farm near Kandy in Sri Lanka by a Scottish planter.
The more than 100-year-old nutmeg trees at farms in Pariyaram, near Chalakudy, have been linked to the Kalady plantation.
Johny John Kannampilly, whose family has a long tradition of nutmeg farming in Paryaram, said his family had a link to the Poonolil family through his paternal grand mother. “The Kannampilly property has trees aged over 100 years and these trees could have come from Kalady,” he said.
India produces nearly 4,000 tonnes of nutmeg and mace, the cultivation now having spread to most of Kerala’s 14 districts and neighbouring States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Places along the Periyar in Mukundapuram taluk of Ernakulam district are the bastions of nutmeg cultivation in Kerala, which has roughly 1.5 lakh nutmeg farmers.
The crop is the mainstay for small and marginal farmers as the prices have swung up substantially over recent years. Though down this year to an average of about Rs.400 a kg, mace sold for nearly Rs.1,500 a kg last year and nutmegs sold for Rs.800 a kg.
An official of the State Department of Agriculture said the nutmeg plantation was considered the oldest in Kerala. Its historical status made the authorities choose it as the venue of Nattukoottam, a programme organised by the former LDF government to attract more people into farming.
Varghese Koikkara, an avid nutmeg farmer living in the property’s neighbourhood, said what was referred to as the Poonolil estate by the local people was the oldest nutmeg farm in Kerala.
Eighty-two-year-old Abraham Poonolil is a former president of the Kalady panchayat. He told The Hindu that the 18-acre parcel of property was bought by his great grandfather, Ittoop Poonolil, in an auction conducted by the Rajah of Travancore. The property came up for auction after its Scottish owner, whose name Mr. Poonolil did not know, died in Kochi and his two daughters did not want to travel to India to take care of the property.
He said there were no written documents about the history of the property.