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Why many Kerala farmers are giving up cash crops like rubber for Rambutan and other exotic fruits

In hectares of farmland in Kerala, rubber and other traditional cash crops are slowly making way for exotic fruits such as rambutan and dragon fruit. The demand for these fruits only keeps on increasing and the result is guaranteed returns for the farmer.

In hectares of farmland in Kerala, rubber and other traditional cash crops are slowly making way for exotic fruits such as rambutan and dragon fruit. The demand for these fruits only keeps on increasing and the result is guaranteed returns for the farmer.

Examining the dense, green leaves of the 15-foot-tall tree, 63-year-old Safiya Suleiman broke a scarlet ball with prickly rind. As it cut around its equator, a snow-white section highly coveted for its sweetness came out.

“This fruit is making quite a splash,” she said, savoring the succulent that has recently been assimilated into the eating habits of Keralites; Rambutan.

For this woman farmer from Erumeli, a high-class village east of Kottayam, every harvest season in her field is testimony to her decision to ‘get out of the ordinary’. Exactly a decade ago, her late husband Suleiman had decided to get rid of the excess of natural rubber in their one-acre farm.

Read also: Setting a model in the cultivation of exotic fruits

third year of planting

“Rubber was no longer an attractive crop and we were looking for something that was a mix of innovation and business. We decided for Rambutan, which replaced rubber trees throughout the property,” she said. Concerns paved the way for astonishment as the trees started bearing fruit within the third year of planting. The fruits of his farm have moved across Europe. Currently, they bring him ₹3 lakh a year.

According to Agriculture Department officials, Ms Suleman belongs to a growing list of farmers carefully cultivating a range of exotic fruits in the tropical hills of Kerala. Geeta Varghese, Principal Agriculture Officer, Kottayam, said, “Such fruits are growing in the mid-lands and foothills.”

people willing to pay

Adopting these fruits helps farmers to ignore the volatility of natural rubber, as the cost of their crops is much higher. People do not hesitate to pay premium for such fruits.

According to the State Horticulture Mission data, the area under commercial cultivation of exotic fruits remains only a fraction of the 3.10 lakh hectares of land under fruit cultivation. The area under cultivation of exotic fruits in 2021 was only 994 hectares.

2.5 lakh mangosteen plants

However, stakeholder agencies argue that these figures represent only part of the story as most such plants are making their way into homes rather than commercial farms. To support the point, they point to the sales figures registered by Home Grown Biotech, one of the largest plant production nurseries in South India, that have sold around 2.5 lakh mangosteen saplings in the past year.

Nursery Managing Director Jose Jacob also confirmed the rapid expansion of exotic fruits across Kerala. According to him, this growth is mainly driven by the quest for better returns given the volatility of natural rubber. “The good sugar-acid balance of the tropical soils of Kerala makes it one of the best places to grow exotic fruits. The presence of four different seasons across the state also keeps the fruit basket full for nine months in a year,” he said.

A view of the fruit of Rambutan in a field in Kerala.

A view of the fruit of Rambutan in a field in Kerala. , photo credit: special arrangement

Apart from mangosteen and rambutan, agro-climatically adapted exotic fruits for cultivation in Kerala include durian, passion fruit, dragon fruit, litchi and avocado. Moving up the value chain, the cultivation of fruits on such a large scale has opened up the possibilities of food processing units apart from the scope of exports.

Read also: Dragon fruit is making its way to terraces and home gardens in Kerala

export-oriented units

But to achieve this, the government needs to take steps to ensure integration of supply and export chains. “There should be export-oriented units facilitated by the government, rather than individual arrangements based on supply each season. In the long run, this will help in checking the falling revenue from the plantation sector and generate more employment among the rural youth,” said Mr. Jacob.

Realizing that the era of rubber prosperity is at its peak, the community of planters has now called for relaxation in the rules governing the plantation area of ​​Kerala, which accounts for one-fifth of the total cultivable land in the state. Efforts have been initiated to convince the State Government on the need to bring equality of reasoning in some important provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 and the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969.

Read also: Luck is a little too thin for rubber

crop in demand

“There is bleeding in plantations, but the question of diversification is even more complicated, given the stringent regulations that have restricted cultivation in plantations to accepted cash crops such as rubber, tea, coffee, cardamom and cocoa. This has slowed down the growth of Kerala’s plantation sector,” said VC Sebastian, national general secretary of the Indian Farmers’ Movement (INFAM).

In his opinion, the traditional classification of plantations, limiting them to a few crops, no longer holds relevance in the event of agricultural rationalization. “Combining crops, tourism and even livestock, called agro-forestry, can boost revenue from a single piece of land,” he said.

The diversification of plantations to include fruit cultivation may not, among other things, be a silver bullet for addressing the uncertainties of climate change, markets, or the biodiversity crisis. But there’s hope in the potential for producers to command a significant premium and turn their fortunes around.

Read also: Abiu, Achiru, Gac: These exotic fruits are now at home in India

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