Enjoying the aroma of freshly picked cloves on the Ambanad highlands in Kollam district is quite enchanting during this part of the year. It’s during December-March that clove harvest spices up these otherwise sleepy hill tracts.
About 400 labourers, a majority of them from Salem district in Tamil Nadu, pick cloves on the 2,500-hectare Ambanad estate. They have to harvest the clove buds with the right hue from about 20,000 trees. Harvesting a mature tree is a four-day job and the task is tough.
These migrant labourers arrive here with their families and spend almost one-and-a-half months harvesting, segregating, and drying cloves. They start harvesting by daybreak and complete the day’s work by 10 p.m. They are paid wages on the basis of the quantity of raw cloves they segregate. Each labourer earns an average wage of Rs.380 a day.
The Ambanad clove estate is one of the biggest in the country and has been owned by the Travancore Tea and Rubber Estate Company for the past 150 years. This year’s harvest has been leased out to a group of four persons for Rs.1 crore.
One of them, K. Radhakrishnan told The Hindu that since the crop is poor this year they are expecting only about 20 kg to 25 kg of raw cloves from each tree. Otherwise, each tree could yield up to 60 kg. Top quality cloves are those that remain as buds, to give a chocolate hue when sundried.
But following an unseasonal rain in February, many of the buds have bloomed and this will affect the quality.
It is the buds with a pinkish hue that are harvested. There will be about 12 to 15 buds in each stalk. The harvested buds are brought to an open ground by evening and segregated. The stalks and the green leaves that get plucked while harvesting have commercial value as these are purchased mainly by toothpaste companies, Mr. Radhakrishnan said.
Providing security to the estate against thefts is another big task. Once the deal is fixed, that responsibility will have to be shouldered by those who take the harvest on lease. Even the labourers are closely watched.
Mr. Radhakrishnan said that about 10 per cent of the crop is lost for various reasons. The main market for dried cloves is Nagercoil and the price this year is about Rs.750 a kg, almost Rs.250 down compared to last year’s. More than 80,000 kg of dried clove is expected this year from Ambanad.
The import of poor quality cloves from Sri Lanka and allegation that these are mixed with the Kerala cloves is one of the causes for the price fall, he said. Yet they are expecting profits. The dried stalks will fetch Rs.80 a kg and the leaves Rs.4 a kg. These too will bring in some good earnings. The other three in the group are C. Chandran, Vijayan, and Saji Kumar.