This past week, 58 year-old S. Ranganathan decimated his 15-acre farm of 1,350 full-grown mango trees by felling them. And this week, he consciously ended his four-year-old battle with Mango thrips, the common pest that infests mangoes.
Visuals of the decades-old trees being felled spoke of a spectre of infestation that swept through the mango farms of Pochampalli, a block with the highest crop area of mangoes in the district. Thrips, the common pest that infests mango trees by feeding on all of its parts, had always responded to pesticides. But in the last four years, Mr. Ranganathan had observed something strange. “Earlier, when I sprayed [pesticides], within 10 minutes the worms will drop dead. But, later, I started noticing the insects crawling over and moving on. It scared me,” he said.
Across the farms, while the pests grew resistant to pesticides, farmers grew desperate and pesticide companies thronged the mango-growing block promising newer and better products. “Every company came, held meetings and training promising that their insecticide would kill [the pests]. I bought different chemicals, which the companies vouched for, hoping they would work,” says Mr. Ranganathan, who is also the president of Puliampatty panchayat in Pochampalli.
Mr. Ranganathan has been cultivating mangoes for more than 30 years on a richly irrigated land. “I used to organise farming techniques and teach farmers how to reap a good harvest,” he recalls.
‘Not an easy decision’
Sounding resigned and emotional, Mr. Ranganathan says it wasn’t an easy decision. “I did everything I could. I was spending ₹4 lakh annually on pesticides and there have only been losses year after year. I had grown these trees, nurtured them and this week, I was forced to kill them myself,” he says with a tremor in his voice.
It was this and his relative affluence to be able to survive a reasonable economic loss that sent psychological ripples among small farmers of Pochampalli. “If he [Mr. Ranganathan] is unable to contain the disease and sustain his farm, what about the rest of us whose mainstay is mango farming only,” asked K.M. Soundararajan, coordinator, Krishnagiri Mango Farmers Association.
Last Friday, the tripartite meeting between mango farmers and the pulp industry over a remunerative starting price for mangoes, as the pulp units begin to buy the fruits, saw a tentative disease assessment report by the Horticulture Department.
According to the assessment, tentative production loss of 53% was seen in the five major mango-growing blocks — Bargur, Kaveripattinam, Mathur, Krishnagiri, and Uthangarai — and it was likely to escalate.
The assessment, placed before Collector Deepak Jacob, was conducted by a micro-level scientific team of horticulture officials, university scientists and farmers, inspecting 160 fields.
“The fields are afflicted by thrips and the preliminary assessment was that fields that had excessive use of pesticides and use of cultar (growth regulator) and large mango farms in the proximity of each other had seen complete loss. In the blocks of scattered mango fields, the attack is less,” the Joint Director (JD) of Horticulture said.
“A detailed research-based study will be conducted and produced before the next season,” he told the Collector.
The mango-growing belt of Krishnagiri that fetched the district its place in the map for mango production was facing a crisis. Suggesting switching over to organic farming , the JD said the department would try and conceive packages for organic farming before the next season.
Mr. Soundararajan, who has been vocal in his criticism of the Horticulture Department, alleged that the department had not intervened, when needed, to provide any sustainable help or training to farmers. This made the farmers turn to pesticide dealers out of desperation. “The intervention should be in advance and timely,” he said.