The cashew nut — favoured ghee-tempered ingredient of many an Indian sweet like payasam , barfi and ladoo — isn’t a stranger to long-distance travel. And as we consume it by the tonne as a wholesome snack, ‘mylk’ (a vegan alternative to dairy milk), or as the thickening agent in curries, it’s clear that the cashew doesn’t believe in culinary social distancing either.
This becomes evident after a visit to Karthikeya Agro Processing unit along the Edumalai-Tirupattur road in Manachanallur Taluk, where women employees are working on cashews that will eventually be supplied to sweet shops and retailers in Tiruchi, Salem and Madurai.
Most of the stock at this factory has been shipped from African countries like Benin, Ivory Coast and Tanzania to Thoothukudi.
The cashew ( Anacardium occidentale ) is a Brazilian evergreen that is thought to have been introduced to India by the Portuguese, mainly to prevent soil erosion. The kidney-shaped drupe is the nut/seed that grows below the cashew apple (also called botanically as a pseudocarp or false fruit). While the commercial processing of cashew nut in India started in the early 20th century, of late, our country has become not just leading supplier (after Vietnam), but also a ravenous consumer of the kernel. Nearly 270,000 metric tonnes of cashew are eaten in India every year.
- The harmful effects of conventional farming and pest control are the subject of Our Cashew Story , a recent 42-minute documentary directed by Serena Aurora. Centred on the cultivation of cashew in and around Auroville community in Puducherry, Serena’s film tries to show the growing disconnection between agriculture and food consumption.
- Every year, the cashew fields surrounding Auroville are sprayed with pesticides from February to April. Health problems such as headaches, nausea, dizziness and runny nose are commonly caused by the spraying. Spray operators also inadvertently inhale the chemicals, because they don’t wear protective gear. The documentary tries to show the different problems related to cashew farming, and focuses on an organic grower within Auroville.
- “ Our Cashew Story is a case study for the global food industry. Modern agriculture is increasingly dependent on pesticides and their negative impact on health, environment and economy is a universal story. I hope this film can add to the conversation,” says Serena in an email interview.
- Public screenings have helped to create dialogue between the growers and consumers, says Serena. “So far, we have screened Our Cashew Story in the local villages around Auroville where up to 200 people attended. We have had lively discussions between farmers who practice organic and inorganic and also with the other villagers, after the screening,” she says.
- While people are willing to try out the eco-friendly pest repellents as shown in the film, the future of organically grown cashews is less certain, says Serena. “What is missing is the market to buy the cashews if farmers shift to organic.”
“Our own production cannot fulfill even 10% of the local demand for raw cashew nut (RCN) in India, so most processing units have to rely on imports. Though cashew is grown in Kollam, Panruti, Theni, Orissa, and Mangalore, among other places, farms cannot keep up with the demand from local buyers,” says unit proprietor D Karthikeyan.
A mechanical engineer by training, Karthikeyan marketed pharmaceuticals for over 20 years before being inspired by a friend in Kerala to establish what is for now, Tiruchi district’s sole cashew processing unit. “I spent a year researching the idea, and selected the equipment by following YouTube videos,” he says.
Karthikeya Agro processes around 2 tonnes of cashew per month. “The best time to start buying stock is from March to June, when the crop is harvested,” says K Villavan, the unit manager, who oversees the daily production with his wife Deivakanni.
The nuts are transported by road from the Thoothukudi docks in gunny sacks weighing 80kg each. “In its raw state, RCN can last up to even a year, but once processed, it must be sold within a month,” says Deivakanni. A sack of raw nuts can yield up to 25 kg of kernels.
At the unit, the RCN is steam-boiled, and then spread out on the floor to dry for at least a day. They are transferred next to a separator machine that will partially crack the shell, without damaging the kernel. “Some 20% of the nuts may get discarded due to improper cutting,” says Villavan. “We cannot put it back in the machine, because it will release oil.”
The kernels are next roasted in a ‘Borma’ dryer. A refrigeration chamber cools down the roasted kernels at the end. “This is essential to loosen the outer testa or husk from the nut,” says Villavan. Once cleaned and graded by a photo-sensitive machine, the nuts are classified as ‘White Wholes’ (sizes 180, 210, 240, 320 and 400); Splits; Large White Pieces; Small White Pieces and Baby Bits. They are also packed for wholesalers in vacuum-sealed 10kg tins.
“Every country’s cashew has its own characteristics based on the soil and growing conditions. Though it actually tastes nicer if there is less colour, buyers prefer white kernels,” says Karthikeyan, who prices his stock between ₹400 and ₹850 per kilo.
With cashew cultivated in 17 states of India on approximately 10.41 lakh hectares, the processing industry is a leading employer of women, as their skills in manually scooping out the whole nut from within the plant casing are highly valued. A skilled worker can earn around ₹400 per day as a kernel processor. All over India, around 10 lakh women are working the cashew industry, with Tamil Nadu alone employing over 2 lakh women. Karthikeya Agro’s 25 female employees, unlike workers of earlier generations, are required to wear safety gear to protect their hands from the abrasive oil secreted by the cashew shells.
Panruti, in Cuddalore district, is ‘Cashew Central’ as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. Out of the total 1,42,000 hectares under cashew cultivation in the State, Panruti accounts for about 35,000 hectares. There are around 32 export-oriented cashew production units here besides 250 processing units and more than 500 cottage industries.
Automation has removed many of the unsafe practices in this industry, but more could be done by the government to promote local agriculture and bring down the reliance on imported RCN, says M Ramakrishnan, secretary of Tamil Nadu Cashew Processors and Exporters Association, and managing partner of Pratipa Cashews in Panruti.
“The Indian market alone needs 20 lakh tonnes of cashews, but we produce only around 8 lakh tonnes domestically. So we have been forced to import at least 10-12 lakh tonnes to keep up,” says Ramakrishnan.
The granting of land to set up a model cashew farm will serve as an agricultural showcase, he adds. Cashew trees don’t require much maintenance — hybrids can last up to 10 years, while the older heirloom varieties could live up to 50 years.
Though the Panruti cashew looks small, it has a unique taste that makes it very marketable. “Cyclone Thane hit our cashew farmers badly in 2011, but they have been able to recoup their losses slowly. We are expecting a bumper crop in Panruti this year,” says Ramakrishnan.