Indigenous across south and south-east Asia, the betel leaf is a temperamental crop, whose problems are yet to find any research-based solutions.

It is a crop that has a long and often-documented past, but an uncertain future; a part of several home remedies, yet helpless against the diseases that attack its growing leaves and stalks: meet Piper betel, or more commonly, the betel leaf.

“Our repeated appeals to the government (through the Department of Horticulture) for the setting up of a betel leaf research institute seem to have fallen on deaf ears,” said N. Thyagarajan, president, Betel Leaf Traders’ Association, Thottiyam, adding that the latest appeal had been made around six months ago.

While enlisting the problems that generally affect the crop, Mr. Thyagarajan uses indigenous names rather than scientific names for the diseases and insects: “Vaadai noi, a monsoon disease that attacks the betel leaves is caused by over retention of moisture by the soil during heavy rains or improper draining of the field after irrigation; the excess moisture sometimes marks the stalks and leaves with black spots as well; the sambal poochi (a local pest) attacks the crop during the monsoons, often rotting the leaves, and drying the stalk,” he said.

In summer, the crop withers under the scorching sun if not irrigated regularly; while the gale, like the one that struck the area recently, can completely flatten the crop out, he added.

One acre of the crop, according to Mr. Thyagarajan, requires the labour of at least 20 people constantly. “Around 10 months after the stalk cuttings from a mature vine have been grafted onto the field, the stalk begins to branch out and sprout leaves, he says, “and the leaves have to be plucked every 20 days.” In this way, the crop requires manual labour for nearly one and half years after planting, thus employing nearly100 farm labourers. But, with most local labour preferring to work for the MNREGS , Mr. Thyagarajan says finding farm labourers has become a stressful and expensive affair for the cultivators.

“We need to compete with the Rs. 132 (recently hiked from Rs. 119) the labourers get paid by the government,” he said.

It is extremely difficult to predict how the crop would turn out and the unpredictability has made it impossible to device any insurance scheme for betel leaf cultivators, according to Mr. Thyagarajan. “The farmer is either in for exponential profits or a complete washout, which has forced many farmers to abandon the crop in the area,” he says adding that the need for insurance is another unmet demand.

“You need at least Rs. 2 lakh to plant one acre, making it a crop that is more costly to cultivate than the banana,” he said. Vellaikodi, pachaikodi and karpooram are the main varieties of betel leaf that have presently been planted in about 1000 acres in and around Thottiyam.

The betel leaves, once plucked, are sent to places within the state like Tiruchi, Kumbakonam, Erode, Salem, Tirupur, Nagapattinam, and Mayiladuthurai.

“Till around 25 years back our produce was used by the paan industry in north India, especially Mumbai,” recalls Mr. Thyagarajan.

But with several studies exposing links between betel paan and cancer, the orders began to fall and now the state’s produce is mostly consumed locally.