Kerala

Hopes begin to wilt

Polyhouse farming, launched with much fanfare, is yet to supply farmers with the promised rich dividends

When Shameer S. decided three years ago to try his hand at polyhouse cultivation, the hi-tech farming sector was scarcely exuding confidence. Across the State, disillusioned entrepreneur farmers were busy calling it a day, courtesy lack of governmental support, viable markets, technical know-how and a plethora of attendant issues.

Nonetheless, Shameer started off by renting a 400-sq m polyhouse at Mannanthala where he grew salad cucumber, yard-long beans, and leafy veggies. A year ago, he decided to go all out. He established a 1,000 sq m polyhouse at his home in Nedumangad, an agriculture-rich region in rural Thiruvananthapuram.

Hard truths

Shameer has not lost his passion for polyhouse farming, but he has also learnt — the hard way — important lessons that every surviving hi-tech farmer in the State would agree are necessary simply to make ends meet.

“This is one sector where you need to pump in money to make money. Getting a subsidy is easy. But there’s more to it than that. The farmer himself needs to have a crystal-clear idea of what is needed in a polyhouse. It is safer not to depend on others,” says Shameer.

Indications are that many of the problems that plagued hi-tech farming in Kerala three or even five years ago still persist. Hi-tech farmers blame a marked lack of support from the government machinery. High operational and maintenance expenses, absence of technical inputs from field-level agricultural offices and mounting bank debts continue to haunt polyhouse farmers. After the devastating floods of 2018 and 2019, many farmers were unable to make a comeback due to the huge expenses involved.

Govt. support is crucial

“We could do with more support from the Department. At present, farmers lack assistance even for hiring power-wash machines to clean the facility once a year. We hire it privately. Cleaning costs alone come to around ₹12,000 annually,” says Aneesh N. Raj of Anchal, Kollam, who won the State award for hi-tech farming for 2017-18. Aneesh had dropped a lucrative corporate job to take up polyhouse cultivation. Today, he has one polyhouse on ten cents of land and two smaller ones on two cents each, where he grows yard-long beans, salad cucumber and tomato. Recently, he added aquaponics to the list. Aneesh says he finds good markets for his produce. “The beans go for ₹100 a kg, the tomatoes (Arka Rakshak variety) for ₹80 per kg and salad cucumber for ₹70. We can do more, with a little more support,” he says.

Though grassroot-level government set-up has been found wanting, social media platforms are proving a big help to these entrepreneur farmers. They are part of WhatsApp and Facebook groups and are in constant touch with each other, sharing tips, and technical advice.

The flagship scheme implemented by the State Horticulture Mission (SHM) offers financial assistance up to 75% of the unit cost to entrepreneurs, said Sakeena I., Joint Director, SHM. Of this 50% comes as Central assistance and 25%, State government share. The 75% subsidy is on offer to polyhouses ranging from 400 to 4,000 sq m, SHM officials said. On their part, farmers urge the government to ensure that the subsidies are issued to only eligible candidates. At present, there is little or no follow-up once the subsidy is issued, they say.

Not all is lost

Polyhouse cultivation cannot be written off as a failure in the State, stresses Dr. Narayanankutty, Professor, Agricultural Research Station, Kerala Agricultural University. “Earlier, many people were attracted to it by the huge subsidy that was on offer. Today, only farmers who are genuinely interested in it remain. Polyhouse farming has potential in the high ranges. Several farmers in places like Wayanad are doing it well,” Dr. Narayanankutty said.

V. Gopakumar, a retired Army Subedar who was one of the earliest to take the plunge into this sector, says a more farmer-friendly attitude on the part of government officials can go a long way. “Polyhouse farming has certain advantages over conventional farming. But you also need to have strong policies and measures to protect farmers. You cannot have policies that keep changing with the governments,” says Mr. Gopakumar who has a polyhouse at Kottoor here.

These days, the retired soldier is also attempting to enhance his income through value addition. “Food processing has scope. Such know-how is not easily available to farmers, though,” he says.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:03:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/hopes-begin-to-wilt/article30654276.ece

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