Tomato farmers in turmoil  

Madanapalle’s tomato growers, who once enjoyed a monopoly across India until about a decade ago, have, over the past couple of years been feeling the pinch of weather challenges, shrinking yields, and fluctuating prices. K. Umashanker paints a vivid picture of their struggles amid their claim of little government support and the uncertainty of a good tomato harvest 

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:55 pm IST

Published - November 24, 2023 08:32 am IST

Tomato farmers at a field near Madanapalle in Annamayya district.

Tomato farmers at a field near Madanapalle in Annamayya district. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During the devastating 2015 floods in south India that wreaked havoc along the coasts of Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh between November 9 and December 16, tomatoes earned the moniker of ‘red gold’. Tomato prices, which had barely surpassed ₹50 per kilogram earlier, skyrocketed to ₹300 per kilogram in the open market. With fields submerged due to relentless rains, tomato farmers in the Madanapalle division, now in Andhra Pradesh’s Annamayya district (previously in the Chittoor district), struggled to salvage the crop and export stocks. Yet, they made a profit, simply because of the high prices.

Eight years later, in 2023, tomato prices are once again showing a similar trend, having reached ₹250 a kilogram. This time, the culprit is the heatwave and a prolonged summer, unprecedented in the typically cool climate of the Madanapalle region that is over 600 metres above sea level. Average temperatures range between 30 and 33 degrees Centigrade, but this year touched 37 degrees, impacting the tomato crop. Summer cultivation in Madanapalle is the most profitable, while from September to February, yields are lower by 40%.

According to Horticulture department officials, there are about 10,000 tomato farmers in the Madanapalle region, cultivating an 8,000-hectare expanse in Annamayya district. During COVID-19, total cultivation area diminished by 2,000 hectares as lockdowns and disruptions in transportation played havoc in the lives of the farmers, who refrained from sowing fresh crop, between 2020 and 2022.

Yields, which exceeded 2,000 tonnes daily before the COVID-19 pandemic, have gradually dwindled to below 300 tonnes over the past two years. During the lockdowns and due to the absence of transport, farmers were forced to abandon large uncultivated areas. Most faced heavy losses. This impact fell was felt in 2022 and 2023 too, as they could not put together the required capital for new crops. The tomato growers are yet to fully recover from those circumstances when they had to leave their ‘red gold’ to wither in the fields.

Ten years ago, the investment per acre was ₹50,000 per season; now, it is ₹2.5 lakh per acre, say farmers. So though the yield has also increased from a decade ago — up from 8 tonnes per acre to 25 per acre during a bumper crop, the costs offset the earnings.

End of a monopoly

Until about a decade ago, tomato farmers in this region enjoyed a monopoly as the top exporters to nearly all States in India and various Southeast Asian countries. A decade ago, the total tomato yield of Madanapalle region was 2 lakh tonnes throughout the year for three crops. Now, the total production is 6 lakh tonnes.

However, the landscape has transformed with many States in India engaging in tomato cultivation. Maharashtra, once dependent on the Madanapalle market, has emerged as one of the most vibrant tomato belts in India. States like Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh grow the crop through both the rabi and kharif seasons.

Tomato growers in Madanapalle have now tapped into marketing their produce beyond middle-men and syndicates who work against them by fixing lower rates in mandis. “It is only in recent years that we have been able to overcome the difficulties while selling our stocks, by leveraging trends on social media and facilitating communication with counterparts in other states,” says Chinna, 42, a farmer in Tamballapalle region. Traders now come to Madanapalle and talk directly to the farmers, lifting stock directly from the fields, thereby decreasing the influence of middle-men.

In neighbouring Anantapur and Satya Sai districts, farmers face more challenges compared to those in the Madanapalle region. Despite Anantapur district boasting an acreage of 15,500 hectares, the yields here are lower than Madanapalle due to untimely rain and perennial drought.

District Horticulture Officer (Anantapur) B. Raghunath Reddy says crop cultivation was robust only in some parts of the district like Kalyanadurgam and Rayadurgam.

“Lack of sufficient water results in reduced yields, to just 20 tonnes per acre [Madanapalle sees 25 tonnes per acre]. Farmers in this area also lack the export advantages enjoyed by their counterparts in other regions,” he says.

Kokkanti Manjunath, 40, a farmer of Valmikipuram mandal in Annamayya district, sums up the plight of tomato cultivators: “Barring 10-15%, all are small farmers. In July and August, prices surpassed the ₹200-mark. When tomato prices shoot up, there is a common misconception that all tomato farmers reap gold. But in reality only the big farmers flourish, while the rest of us endure the worst.”

Traditional occupation

In a completely agrarian belt, farmers, most of them unlettered, have clung to tomato cultivation for decades, staying away from changing crop patterns. Unregulated fertilizer use has rendered several hectares unproductive in the region, and seasonal blight remains a persistent threat to their livelihoods.

While there is practically no government mechanism to address the issues of shortage of stocks or falling prices during a bumper crop period, officials blame tomato growers for not switching to alternative crops when they face losses. Now that the tomato cultivation monopoly of Madanapalle region is slowly fading, the farmers are left to take their own risks.

Ramesh, 41, another farmer in Gurramkonda mandal in Annamayya district, says that despite grand claims made by Agriculture and Horticulture officials about providing optimal guidance to farmers, the reality is quite different.

“With the younger generation migrating to Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, aging farmers are left with no choice but to cling to their traditional vocation. No official seems concerned about our plight. We are entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of change of crop patterns and growing intercrops,” he adds.

Threat to trade

The volatile price dynamics of tomatoes pose a threat to the trade’s prospects. Tomatoes serve as a dietary staple in numerous States across India, particularly in the southern regions. The surge in prices has significantly impacted numerous households, either burdening their finances or compelling them to cut back on their tomato consumption.

“When tomato prices skyrocket, most households normally resort to alternatives such as tamarind. While many people can manage without tomato in their day-to-day cooking, the government should come to the consumer’s rescue through subsidies during a period of unprecedented price rise,” says Sangeetha Lekkala, a teacher from Madanapalle.

“We had never seen tomato prices going beyond ₹250-300 per kg a decade ago,” says Murugesh, a tomato vendor from Koyambedu market in Chennai, who was one of the many traders from across the country to have thronged the Madanapalle tomato market to procure stocks.

“On average, the price used to be ₹3-5 a kg. Slowly, the hotel industry and households are switching to cheaper substitutes such as tamarind paste. A kg of seedless tamarind at ₹150 a kg would serve a household for a couple of months. When it comes to tomatoes, with prices soaring by the day, households are forced to spend ₹2,000 over a two-month period,” he says. This means traders would think twice before getting into the tomato business due to the market volatility.

Mohammad Basha, a vegetable merchant in Madanapalle, however, argues: “These days, all sections of consumers are habituated to using tomatoes in their food. The consumption may come down in households and hotels, but the business won’t stop.” Traditionally not eaten in Indian cuisine, tomatoes reached India’s shores in the 16th century through the Portuguese, who came to trade, and later colonised parts of the country.

Processing units ‘impractical’

In 2014, amid the peak of the general elections campaign, the then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, while addressing a public meeting in the pilgrim’s city of Tirupati, painted a promising future for tomato growers of the Rayalaseema region. He had said that there was a huge potential for processing industries. From that moment, the then domestic tomato market gradually gained importance, with farmers dreaming of a future where their lands would yield ‘gold’.

It took nearly a decade for farmers to come to the realisation that setting up of processing units for tomatoes in the Madanapalle region was not practical. This is due to the volatile nature of tomato prices, ranging from ₹2 per kg to ₹300 per kg, and the looming uncertainty during natural calamities.

The region’s farmers also realised that the era of their monopoly had faded with tomato cultivation proliferating across the country, especially in the northern states and in neighbouring Maharashtra.

Responding to the idea of setting up processing units, District Horticulture Officer (Annamayya) Ravichandra Babu says processing industries require a substantial stock of tomatoes, inevitably seeking prices at ₹2 or ₹3 per kg. Only then would the concept of processing units be feasible, he explains.

Farmers say though that the current Jagan Mohan Reddy government has mooted a proposal to establish processing units in Madanapalle, but it is yet to materialise.

The cost of cultivating tomatoes on an acre is approximately ₹2 lakh. Each farmer typically opts for three crops in a year — summer, kharif, and rabi. Madanapalle farmers risk losing crops in rabi and kharif, but retain strong faith in the summer sowing.

“During the traditional seasons, crops generally suffer damage due to rains and chilly winters. However, in summer, Madanapalle enjoys a favourable climate for tomato-growing. It is during this season that farmers anticipate reaping profits,” a field officer from the Horticulture department says.

Finding a way out

Experts say that with farmers having no practical knowledge of the supply-and-demand theory concerning tomatoes, huge stretches of fields stand abandoned and unharvested.

Chennai-based horticulture scientist Srikanth, known for his extensive fieldwork and research in Madanapalle, underscores the pressing need for tomato growers to embrace diverse crop patterns. Rather than opting for mass cultivation, he suggests that farmers consider alternating between tomatoes and millets.

The younger generation, many of whom have pursued careers as software professionals, foresee a future where tomato farming will predominantly be a domestic endeavour. “In some parts of our region, a few farmers have switched to cultivating maize, which is now thriving. In Mulakalacheruvu mandal of Annamayya district, we have a success story of tomato farmers making a shift to millet farming,” shares Venkat Gowi, a software professional based in Bengaluru, and a farmer’s son.

Another positive trend among the youth in Madanapalle region is their involvement in importing tomatoes from northern States during non-summer months and supplying them to southern States. Some of them are procuring stocks from Chhattisgarh and Punjab at considerably lower prices, selling them for a profit in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where tomato farming is not as prevalent as it is in the north.

The tomato farmers of Madanapalle tell a tale of steadfast resolve: “If not now, next season. Or the one after that,” they say, their voice echoing across the fields.


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