A spicy success for Pudukottai district’s farming sector

Black pepper has become an unlikely hit for Pudukottai’s growers

Published - March 03, 2022 04:38 pm IST - TIRUCHI

Pepper vines trained around special support pipes at Senthamil Selvan’s farm in Senthagudi village in Pudukottai district.

Pepper vines trained around special support pipes at Senthamil Selvan’s farm in Senthagudi village in Pudukottai district. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A group of farmers in Pudukottai district seems to have taken the adage ‘variety is the spice of life’ to heart, and has been successfully engaged in cultivating black pepper (Piper nigrum) here for the past decade.

Though it is considered to be a crop of hilly regions, pepper can grow equally well on the plains, especially when it is inter-cropped with coconut, say horticulture experts. A plant can yield up to 10 kg of dried spice. The peppercorns are harvested manually, the lower reaches by women, and the higher sections by men on ladders.

It is estimated that at least 300 acres of land are being used for pepper cultivation in Pudukottai district, in areas such as Mangadu, Alangudi, Vadakkadu, Keeramangalam and Sethakudi.

“The main requirement for this crop is shade, and Pudukottai is known more for its searing sunshine. But farmers have worked around this by training the vines up tall trees on their farms,” K. Dhanalakshmi, associate professor of horticulture at Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Vamban, Pudukottai district, told The Hindu.

Pepper growing at the farm of D. Rajakannu, in Anavayal, Pudukottai district.

Pepper growing at the farm of D. Rajakannu, in Anavayal, Pudukottai district. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“So while farmers in Tirumayam, Gandharvakottai and Arimalam blocks plant coconut or other trees to support the vines, others have shifted to a new short-statured bush variety that grows up to five feet and can be harvested easily,” she added.

Black pepper farmers in the district said the effects of 2018 Gaja cyclone had been more damaging than the pandemic. “Many of our trees were blown down, and it took us at least two years to get the farms ready for cultivation again,” said Senthamil Selvan, who has been growing pepper on one-and-a-half acres of his six-acre organic farm in Senthangudi village since 2013.

“At first I inter-cropped it with coconut, but of late, I have switched to specially adapted pipes and support structures, to grow pepper,” said Mr. Selvan, who also runs a nursery for pepper saplings.

It is possible to train at least 400 pepper vines in an acre of coconut trees, said the farmer. “Though the pepper plant is said to last for at least 60 years, it starts bearing fruit three to five years after planting. So farmers may have to plan for other crops along with pepper to earn their livelihood,” said Mr. Selvan.

Out of 37 pepper varieties, only around four or five have been successfully grown in Pudukottai district.

“Karimunda, Cauvery, Panneer 1 and 7, and Wayanad are some of the varieties that have done well in our farms. But we don’t get any help from the government to market our pepper, which is equal in spice level and quality to the Malabar crop,” said D. Rajakkannu, who has been growing the spice for 20 years on his four-acre farm in Anavayal.

In pre-pandemic times, the price of Pudukottai’s pepper touched up to ₹1,000 per kg, but since has dipped to around ₹600. “The effect of the lockdown was not really felt much in our area; instead competition from cheaper Sri Lankan pepper has hit our farmers more,” said Mr. Rajakkannu.

The farmer said that value-added pepper products were not yet popular in the district.

“Even the scope for producing white pepper, which just involves removing the darker flesh of the ripe pepper fruit and powdering the seed after it has been dried, has not been explored in our area, despite its higher market rate per kilo,” Mr. Rajakkannu said.

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