Probing through the thick, green leaves of a 15-foot-tall tree, 63-year-old Safiya Sulaiman plucked a reddish orb with a prickly rind. As she cut around its equator, what popped out was a snow-white segment that is highly coveted for its sweetness.
“This fruit is making quite a splash,” she said, savouring the succulence that has assimilated itself lately into the eating habits of Keralites; the rambutan.
For this woman farmer from Erumely, a village on the eastern high-ranges of Kottayam, every harvest season in her farm is a vindication of a decision to ‘grow out of ordinary’. It was exactly a decade ago that Sulaiman, her late husband, had decided to get rid of the overhang of natural rubber on their one-acre farm.
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Third year of planting
“Rubber was no longer an attractive crop and we were looking for something that could be a mix of novelty and business. We decided on rambutan, which replaced the rubber trees in the entire property,” she said. There was scepticism initially. The concerns gave way to awe as the trees started bearing fruits within the third year of planting itself. The fruits in her farm have gone all the way to Europe. Currently, they fetch her ₹3 lakh a year.
Ms. Sulaiman, according to officials with the Agriculture department, belongs to a growing list of farmers carefully nurturing an array of exotic fruits in the tropical hills of Kerala. “Such fruits are turning up at farms across the mid-lands and the foothills,” said Geetha Varghese, Principal Agriculture Officer, Kottayam.
People willing to pay
The switch to these fruits helps farmers ignore the fluctuations of natural rubber, because their crops are worth much more. People are not hesitant to pay a premium for such fruits.
As per State Horticulture Mission figures, the area under commercial cultivation of exotic fruits remained only a fraction of the 3.10 lakh hectares of land under fruit cultivation. The area under cultivation of exotic fruits stood at just 994 hectares in 2021.
2.5 lakh mangosteen saplings
However, stakeholder agencies, argue that these figures represent only a part of the story as a majority of such plants are making their way to homesteads instead of commercial farms. To back the point, they point to the sales figure registered by Home Grown Biotech, one of the largest plant production nurseries in south India, which has sold around 2.5 lakh mangosteen saplings in the last one year alone.
Jose Jacob, managing director of the nursery, too attested to a rapid expansion of exotic fruits across Kerala. This growth, according to him, is primarily driven by the quest for better returns in view of the fluctuating fortunes of natural rubber. “The fine sugar-acid balance of Kerala’s tropical soil makes it one of the best places to grow exotic fruits. The presence of four distinct seasons across the State too keeps its fruit basket full for nine months a year,” he said.
Besides mangosteen and rambutan, among the exotic fruits agro-climatically suited for farming in Kerala are durian, passion fruit, dragon fruit, litchi and avocado. Moving up the value chain, fruit farming on such a large scale throws open the prospects of food processing units, in addition to the scope for exports.
But to achieve this, the government needs to step in and ensure integration of the supply and export chains. “Instead of the individual arrangements based on each season’s supply, there should be government-facilitated export-oriented units. In the long run, it will help arrest the falling revenue from plantation sector and generate more employment among rural youth,” said Mr. Jacob.
Realising that the era of rubber opulence is well past its prime, the community of planters has now called for relaxation of the rules governing Kerala’s plantation sector, which accounts for one-fifth of the total cultivable land in the State. Attempts have been launched to convince the State government on the need to bring a semblance of logic in certain critical provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, and Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969.
Crops in demand
“The plantations are bleeding but the question of diversification is even more complex, given the rigid rules that have limited the cultivation in plantations to the approved cash crops such as rubber, tea, coffee, cardamom and cocoa. This has retarded the growth of Kerala’s plantation sector,’’ noted V.C. Sebastian, National Secretary General, the Indian Farmer’s Movement (INFAM).
In his opinion, the traditional classification of plantation, limiting them to a few crops, no longer holds relevance in the face of agriculture rationalisation. “Blending crops, tourism and even livestock, a practice loosely called agro-forestry, could boost revenue from the same piece of land,” he added.
Diversification of plantations to include fruit farming, among other things, may not a silver bullet to address vagaries of climate change, market, or the biodiversity crisis. But the growers remain hopeful in its ability to command a significant premium and turn around their fortunes.