Subin Cherian, a cut foliage exporter from Pala, has nothing to cheer about this festival season when the demand for his products should have ideally gone up.
Standing near his homestead farm spread over seven acres in a town known for rubber plantations, this agripreneur blames himself for investing in a floriculture venture that has failed to take off as expected. “An investment in pineapple or any other fruit would have earned good results at the end of the year. Cut foliage trade has not flourished as expected,” he says.
Mr. Cherian is one among a large number of floriculturists whose business has been grounded by the pandemic outbreak. “During pre-pandemic days, I used to export between 25,000 to 30,000 cut foliage in a consignment to the Gulf. I could cater to the demand from the Arab nations for four months before COVID-19 struck,” says Mr. Cherian.
“Since then, the airfare for sending the consignment to the Gulf has gone up four-fold, making the business unviable. Though there is a huge market in the Arab countries for cut foliage, there has not been any governmental support for entrepreneurs,” he says.
The festive month of Onam is that part of the year when floriculturists do good business. During September, when Kerala turns itself into one big, bright floral carpet to welcome the mythical king Mahabali, trucks laden with flowers of all shapes and hues make a beeline to the State from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The marriage seasons in the State also witness the demand for flowers go up and the demand is met by flowers brought in from the neighbouring States.
“Onam days see the sale of flowers go up in the markets of Thiruvananthapuram. The flower marts in Chalai market generally sell around 10,000 kg flowers a day during the season,” says K. Sureshkumar, president of the Thiruvananthapuram Florists Association.
Though small-scale farming of marigold is undertaken in some parts on the outskirts of the city, they are insufficient to meet the demand. These flowers are purchased by the local traders themselves. Globe amaranth (vadamulla) is one flower variety that is in huge demand during Onam as it is widely used for making floral carpets. There is a steady demand for jasmine, oleander, orange and white marigold, and cut flowers, namely rose and orchid, throughout the year, says Mr. Sureshkumar.
The floral trade also offers livelihood to over 5,000 women, who are mostly into threading flowers into garlands in the capital, besides the nearly 300 traders, he says.
Despite the steady demand for flowers in both domestic and international markets, floriculture is yet to catch up in a big way in the State. Currently, it is estimated that floriculture is being carried out in some 16,000 ha and the annual production is around 780 tonne.
Cut flowers, namely orchids, anthurium and heliconia, account for a major portion of the annual flower production in the State. Loose flowers such as bush jasmine and marigold are farmed in the category, says Sheron Fernandez, Assistant Professor, Department of Floriculture and Landscape Architecture, College of Agriculture, Vellanikkara.
When it comes to cut foliage, the annual production in the State is estimated to be around 500 crore leaves a year. Currently, cut foliage plants are farmed in around 600 ha. The cut foliage market is dominated by plants namely Massangeana, Song of India, Song of Jamaica, Philodendrons, Monstera and Murrayya. There is also a huge demand for Leather Leaf fern, Ivy, Podocarpus, and Silver dollar plants. Cut foliage plants are mostly farmed in Wayanad, Nelliampathy in Palakkad and Munnar and Kanthalloor in Idukki, says a floriculturist.
Kerala needs to set up a separate department for popularisation of cut-foliage, says Shajimon Puthenpurakkal, who has farmed these plants extensively. The availability of cut foliage in the global market has been hit by the crisis in Sri Lanka and some other countries. The government should take the initiative to spread awareness about farming flowers, he says.
P.J. Benny of Pullan’s Flora, Varapetty, near Kothamangalam, Ernakulam, is into cut foliage farming for the past few years. Mr. Benny, who had been farming orchids, shifted focus to cut foliage as the import of orchid flowers hit the local traders. “Cut foliage is offered at a price of ₹40 a bunch from the farm against ₹60 for the product from Bengaluru. Each bundle will have six leaves. There is a steady internal demand for the products in the State,” says Mr. Benny, who had set up his farm in around seven acres.
Ideally, says Prof. U Sreelatha, Head of the Department of Floriculture and Landscape Architecture, College of Agriculture, Vellanikkara, the State should focus on foliage plants considering its unique climatic conditions, including the heavy rain it receives during most part of the year. Floriculture can be best tried in hilly districts such as Idukki. Focussing on foliage plants for cut foliage and potted plants will be the ideal options for the State as these plants can be easily farmed here. The risk involved in this farming is also relatively less, she says.
Farming of foliage plants is yet to get its due from the State authorities. There is a huge demand for ornamental cut foliage in Delhi and Maharashtra. Suppliers often struggle to meet the demand from the Middle East countries. Kerala needs to tap these avenues, she says.
“On a given week,” says Mr. Cherian, “cut foliage could be exported only on four days. While some of the top producers such as Thailand and Sri Lanka have slashed air freight charges, which has helped the traders there, no such initiative has been taken in India, which has hit the farmers hard.”
The department, in association with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, New Delhi, and the Directorate of Floricultural Research, Pune, is planning to hold a two-day workshop in Kerala soon to explore the possibility of setting up a farmer-producer company to promote floriculture.
At present, the department is extending technical as well as scientific support to farms. It hopes to provide a platform for addressing the issues faced by cut foliage and floriculturists through the workshop, says Prof. Sreelatha.