Crimea and punishment

An alien fruit took root in India two decades ago, sparking an export-driven boom that brought overnight prosperity to thousands of farmers. But today gherkin cultivation is in crisis, and the fingers of blame are all pointing in the direction of Crimea, reports Mohit M. Rao

Updated - October 31, 2017 01:05 pm IST

Published - October 14, 2017 12:15 am IST

Workers in the final stages of pack gherkins with acid preservatives and vinegar in Ranebennuru in Haveri district, Karnataka.

Workers in the final stages of pack gherkins with acid preservatives and vinegar in Ranebennuru in Haveri district, Karnataka.

Manzoor, a farmer barely in his 20s, picks up a small prickly fruit. He scrapes at its rough green skin, which is covered in hair. “I know for sure you can’t eat this,” he says. He speaks of a “large company”, whose local agents contacted him with seeds, contracts and promises earlier this year. “It is actually medicine,” he adds, with some confidence. When he puts it down, he washes his hands thoroughly, and uses a stone to exfoliate the fingers. Pesticide, he says, corrodes the skin, turning it rough and whitish.

Neat rows of strings and poles divide his one acre farm into grids. Water marks the channel in the middle, and the creepers clinging desperately to strings are beginning to wilt with disease.

Manzoor is astonished to hear that people in other parts of the world eat the ‘medicine’ that he grows. No one has told him that in the West, pickled gherkin is a condiment, as common on dining tables as pepper. Confounded, he calls his neighbours, who have been growing gherkins in their village Thimmapura in Haveri district, close to the River Tungabhadra in Central Karnataka. They laugh. “No, it cannot be. When our children come here, we have to keep an eye on them. If they eat it, they will fall sick. It fills the stomach with gas,” says Rajappa, another young farmer who has been growing gherkins for the past five years.

The recent rains have transformed the undulating plains into a quilt of green. In these chequered fields sliced up only by roads and irrigation canals, rice, maize, sugarcane and millets have been the traditional crops. It’s only over the past decade that the gherkins have slowly established a foothold.

But the bad news is that this season’s crop has been washed out by unseasonal rains. The three gherkin crops in a year are typically grown from April to June, August to October, and December to February.

Discussing gherkins with farmers inevitably leads to narratives of agrarian distress, migrations, and failed bore wells. Amid the vinegar flavours of gherkin processing centres in Karnakata’s agro-processing zones spread across eight districts, managers and exporters list out their concerns. These range from the Goods and Service Tax, which shrinks their working capital, to the international outrage over Russian military aggression, to even the weather in Vietnam. A bumper crop in that country could affect the fortunes of the crop back home in India, and thus the lives of Manzoor and Rajappa.

A crop like no other

With little domestic demand, the foreign crop is like no other in the State, and perhaps in the country. Seeds sealed in neat packets are brought in all the way from Europe. Export companies engage farmers through contracts, and it is in the unpredictable agrarian environs of Karnataka that the alien fruit is birthed.

The fruit, however, undergoes a series of chemical treatments before being shipped thousands of miles again, with its final destination ranging from the restaurants of Madrid to the supermarkets of Manhattan.

In the 1990s, as information technology (IT) and the outsourcing boom transformed Bengaluru, a few hundred kilometres away, exporters found in the relative warmth of districts such as Kolar and Bagepalli the perfect conditions for the cultivation of gherkins. Just like the IT boom, this one, too, was founded on cheap labour.

For more than a decade, this sector saw on average an annual growth rate of 20%. Export companies popped up like mushrooms in food parks and SEZs. While banks announced special loans, agriculture policies dangled special incentives, and gherkin contract farming spread across the State. “The gherkin revolution has turned many impoverished farmers into lakhpathis,” stated a 2006 report by the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) in 2006.

By 2014, over 1.31 lakh farmers in southern India were engaged in gherkin cultivation. The sector’s exports touched ₹1,200 crore, an impressive feat considering that a decade ago, exports were barely worth ₹180 crore.

When it was dropped into the State two decades ago, the fruit did not have a local name. Now it goes by the odd term ‘medicine cucumber’. Most say that it is a corruption of the Kannada word, midi , meaning small. Farmers in areas where gherkins are just making an entry into the landscape think that the name is on account of it being made into medicine (some believe it cures piles), or, perhaps, because the fruit leaves a bitter aftertaste, like a tablet.

Karnataka, where gherkin cultivation covers 20 out of the 30 districts, accounts for more than 60% of India’s production, with the neighbouring States of Andhra Pradesh, Maharasthra and Tamil Nadu chipping in.

Similar to the dynamics in the IT sector, where a policy announcement on the other side of the world tends to echo through the air-conditioned corridors of Bengaluru, the gherkin industry is also highly vulnerable to the headwinds of global events.

The gherkin is a demanding crop; even a one-day delay in picking the fruit makes it unviable. A farm hand in Ranebennuru, Haveri district.

The gherkin is a demanding crop; even a one-day delay in picking the fruit makes it unviable. A farm hand in Ranebennuru, Haveri district.


The Russia problem

In 2014, parts of central Karnataka saw copious monsoon rains even as large parts of the State battled drought. The perfect conditions yielded a bumper crop. But just a few months before the monsoons arrived, something unexpected happened: Russian soldiers took over the courthouses and government buildings of Crimea.

The Russian annexation of Crimea had begun. Despite international outrage, a referendum was conducted. Eventually, a pro-Russia government was installed to govern the peninsula where no gherkins are grown.

As Russia faced sanctions from Europe and America, suddenly, India’s largest importer of gherkins found itself unable to afford the fruit. Thousands of miles away, in nondescript villages of Karnataka where news from the outside world is hard to come by, company agents were suddenly obsessed with the “Russia crisis”.

A conversation in Hemodre, a village in drought-prone Sira taluk near the Andhra Pradesh border, triggers an impromptu gathering of curious farmers. Beeresh, 30, the local agent, is called in to explain the dynamics of gherkin cultivation in the village.

Beeresh’s job is to talk to farmers, perhaps even give loans (sometimes from his own pocket), so that they shift to gherkin cultivation. He has to ensure enough produce to meet the targets, which are decided by the companies based on the export orders they have received. The credit he gives to the farmers is later deducted from the payments made for the gherkin produce.

“I used to contract 250 farmers. But due to the Russia problem and other issues, we were asked to cut down on acreage as demand dipped. Now there are 150 farmers, but they don’t do it regularly enough,” he says. With the cut in supply, his commissions have dropped. He is now in a debt of more than ₹2 lakh, which he hopes to pay off when the market stabilises.

About 200 km away, in a recently refurbished factory that sticks out incongruously in the maize and sugarcane fields of southern Ballari district, the air smells of the acid preservatives in which gherkins are stored.

Srinivas R., the factory manager, explains what happened when Crimea was annexed. In 2014-15, the factory handled 14,000 tonnes. “We prepared for a bumper crop, and suddenly the orders dipped. The rouble had crashed, from 38 to 83 roubles to a dollar. The Russians were no longer able to buy gherkins in bulk from here. We had tonnes of gherkins with no buyers,” he says. Within a year, the acreage sown in the area reduced by 40%.

The setback reverberated through company balance sheets. Exports to Russia came down from ₹234 crore in 2014-15 to just ₹90 crore in 2016-17. Russia remains the key, for it is the only importing country that takes lower-grade gherkins which are often rejected by European buyers.

The crisis devastated the industry. At least five companies with significant investments — some owned by hotel, telecom and steel tycoons — have folded up. “These are difficult times, compounded by international and domestic problems,” says Mune Gowda, who heads Exotic Agro Pvt. Ltd., and is the Treasurer of the Indian Gherkin Exporter's Association. “Even the U.S. has started importing from Mexico, while Vietnam is catching up in gherkin production,” he says. In the past three years, a quarter of the gherkin farmers have stopped production for various reasons, estimates the association. Production has dipped by over 70,000 metric tonnes. Making up for the loss of the Russian market by tapping the European one proved difficult as the latter is choosy and has strict compliance norms and certification requirements.

The foreigner

Domestically, cultivating gherkins comes with its own problems. Unpredictable weather takes a toll on the crop. The gherkin itself is a demanding crop that takes its pound of flesh from the land on which it is sown. “It acts like a foreigner who lives here,” says Ranganath at Hemodre village. He is relatively less enamoured of the cucumber. He is not taken in by the promise of high yields. “If the wind changes direction for an hour, it falls sick,” he says.

Gherkins need constant care, which isn’t easy given the harsh realities of farming in India: monsoons are erratic and prone to failure; rural distress has sparked large-scale migrations and reduction in the availability of labour; tropical diseases sweep across large tracts; and groundwater reserves are dwindling. This constant battle has made the farmers christen the fruit kiri kiritarakari (irritating vegetable’) and soutekaye savasa (‘problematic cucumber).

A little more than a month after the seeds are sown, gherkins pop out of the base of the flower, yielding fruits incessantly for the next two months.

It is here that the trouble begins. If it is not picked within a few hours of flowering, it grows exponentially in size, and for the farmers, the bigger it is, the smaller their returns. The gherkins are graded according to their size and there are five grades in all. The smallest gherkins (160 of them can fit in a crate) could fetch ₹32 per kilo. The biggest (less than 30 in a crate) fetch just ₹2. If transportation of the plucked gherkins is delayed, up to one-third of the produce could be lost.

“We need 15 labourers a day just to pick the fruit. Most of the youth have gone to Bengaluru or Hyderabad for jobs. If we delay the picking by one day, the gherkin grows and becomes unviable for us,” said 41-year-old Siddarameshwara in the remote Udramappanahalli village of Sira taluk. His crop this year has been ravaged by mildew, which sets upon gherkins when it rains.

It’s because of these reasons that despite his success with the crop in the past 10 years, he has confined gherkins to just 0.5 acres of his 12-acre farm. As white, stringy fungus envelops the gherkin, he hopes that the winter crop can compensate for his loss. However, in the slight chill of the winter lurks the melon fly which, farmers say, no quantity of pesticide can effectively contain.

More disconcertingly, the crop guzzles water. If the field is not irrigated daily, gherkins become shrivelled and bent, unsuitable for export. For the 50 days or so that it flowers, farmers have to draw water from their borewells. If maize needs water thrice in two weeks, the gherkin needs it every day. Maize is grown twice a year; gherkins thrice a year. For all the three seasons to yield sizeable profits, it needs more than 150 days of irrigation.

Bitter harvest: “Karnataka, where gherkin cultivation covers 20 out of the 30 districts, accounts for more than 60% of India’s production.”


The guru of gherkins

Eight years ago, it was the sight of a group of Spaniards inspecting gherkins in Bagepalli, just 100 km from Bengaluru close to the Andhra Pradesh border, that enthralled villagers. Taking them around the clusters of gherkin villages was B. Srinivas, whose company acted as a conduit for the bigger companies and farmers. The Spaniards had told the gherkin growers that the produce here was the best they had seen.

Having taken to the gherkin sector in 1998, it was he and a small band of agents who persuaded farmers to try this new crop. Agents and company facilitators propped up. Bollywood-style films on gherkin management were shown to farmers to attract them to the crop. Gherkins, it was believed, could lift the region out of poverty.

Srinivas remembers the ‘gherkin rush’. “Farmers would line up for seeds. We could even do large swathes of 30 acres in each village. Things were easy back then.”

Over 1,000 acres of gherkins – a limit constrained only by the volume of the companies’ export orders – were sown in 2006-07. Money flowed as advances to farmers, agents kept a steep commission from the output, and for farmers, gherkins did translate into money.

Then the inevitable happened. By the late 2000s, the rains started failing, and one by one, the borewells went dry. Groundwater dipped in places from 400 feet to more than 1,200 feet. In places where the borewells ran through the summer, they now stopped two months before the rains, and later, didn’t function even in the winter. Gherkins, with their immediate need for water, were the first to be affected.

By 2011, the number of ‘red’ farmers – those with debts – rose dramatically, and the agents had to look farther for suitable land, with some going as far as Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh. “It just didn’t work out. We would get half an acre in one village and a couple of acres elsewhere far away. The debts kept rising. I had to get out,” Srinivas says.

In the hustle of the Bagepalli market, the man who many farmers and agents say was the guru of gherkins in the region now runs an agro-business focussing only on traditional vegetables and maize seeds. Just three agents operate now, and struggle to cumulatively cover 50 acres.

Cycles of debt

Drought and international price fluctuations have left behind a cycle of debt – unpaid loans for field agents and gherkin farmers, who, in turn, have to pledge a greater share of future gherkin production.

In the past decade, the prices of the seeds, all imported, went up from 6 paise to 68 paise per seed. If tomato seeds cost ₹700 for 10,000, the cost for gherkins is up to ₹10,000. The returns, however, haven’t kept up. In the same period, the price of premium gherkins has gone up from ₹8 to ₹32 per kg.

In some areas, agents have racked up debts of more than ₹50 lakh. Agents like Gangappa in Bagepalli who claims to have nearly ₹70 lakh in debt from farmers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, have pinned their hopes on the recent rains that have filled up tanks. They hope that these farmers can repay the debt by cultivating gherkins again.

The rains have indeed given life to the dry lands of Bagepalli, Sira and central Karnataka, which glimmer now in various shades of green. There is slight optimism in the corporate offices of exporters too: a steady year can blunt India’s reputation as an “uncertain” producer that frequently misses shipment dates. But is it possible that, somehow, the U.S. and Russia would normalise relations and bring Indian gherkins back on Russian tables?

Well, the fruit is fickle and vulnerable, and uncertainties loom, much like the dark vestigial monsoon clouds that threaten to wash out this season’s crop.

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