By Rajendra Jadhav
Talegaon: In some of India’s rugged rural expanses where traditional agriculture is a thankless pursuit, farmers have begun cultivating a hope for the blossom of love around the world; so they can sell flowers to the enamoured.
And February 14 is their tryst with profits.
Come Valentine’s Day, or the weeks of run-up to it, Indian growers make a determined bid to break into the multi-billion dollar world market for cut flowers, even as the local market takes a breather from a flurry of festivals and weddings.
In a 20-day spell, they export 20 million rose stems, not much by volumes, but enough to give them a foothold in a rewarding market ever looking for more supply sources.
One such exporter is Shivajirao Bhegade, 38, an affluent farmer in the western Indian village of Talegaon, whose investment of as much as 100 million rupees in the last five years has begun to bear fruit.
“It is that time of the year when you make money,” Bhegade told Reuters in his native Marathi language, before chipping in to help his packing staff in a rush to meet tight shipping deadlines.
The grip of winter in the West that coincides with bloom time in tropical countries like India is shifting to the latter the onus of flower supply around this time.
But, Indian farmers, content with a robust domestic market where flowers are bought for weddings and festivals round the year, have only recently started looking out for new markets.
Indians’ share in the global flower market was a tiny 1 percent, or 35,186 tonnes valued at 3 billion rupees in the year to March 2006, seen growing 15 percent this year.
But federal authorities have set a target of Rs 10 billion (Rs1000 crore) to be reached within three years.
Government subsidies and tax breaks, besides superior returns compared to local prices, have spurred more and more farmers to start growing flowers, especially in areas such as Talegaon, where little else grows vigorously.
Most farmers still grow varieties of roses, given that India’s climate is conducive for their growth, the world market for them is mature and well-rewarding and the country has a long tradition of growing roses.
But after years of supplying marigold, tuberose, jasmine, rose and aster at home, many farmers are increasingly bringing in flowers of the Western world -- carnation, gladiolus, lilies and orchids -- to grow them in sheltered, climate-controlled farms.
“Investment may be less in growing traditional crops like wheat, but growing flowers gets you better rewards,” Bhegade said.
However, the flower market is not a bed of roses. Global buyers insist on high quality, often too difficult to maintain for Indian farmers caught in poor transport facilities, port delays and funding shortfalls.
“Initially we had no idea. But over time, we have figured out how to maintain quality, adapt cultivation to seasonal demand and where to send our consignments for the best price,” Bhegade said.
Talegaon also houses the Horticulture Training Centre (HTC), a Maharashtra state body set up with Dutch assistance, for training farmers best growing methods and export strategy.
Its joint director, Sangeetha Laddha, said India has now just now begun to take advantage of its natural strengths - amiable weather round the year, low costs and skillful farmers.
Data with Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority showed that flower cultivation in India more than doubled to 116,000 hectares in the decade to 2005.
Laddha said nascent efforts to grow flowers under sheltered farms called poly-houses have covered 500 hectares so far.
There is a long way to go before India can become a significant player in the world market for flowers, and there is no shortage of hurdles either. Bhegade’s multi-million rupee farm is an exception and many farmers can’t afford a poly-house or the quality investments needed to succeed in the export market.
“For small farmers it is not possible to invest one crore (ten million) rupees,” needed to set up a small poly-house, said Suraj Patne, who trains farmers at HTC.
Besides, royalty payments for patented hybrids were often too much to bear, while infrastructure bottlenecks added to the cost, Summit Jehlot of flower exporter Century International said.
“When we export flowers of Western varieties we have to pay Rs 50 to 60 rupees ($1.1-1.3) royalty per plant and it is not possible for small farmers,” he said.
Bhegade, the Talegaon farmer, often wonders who this Saint Valentine was, who inspired millions of lovers exchange gifts of romance on a certain day each year.
“I don’t really understand what this Valentine’s Day is, but it must be a very good thing, because it helps expand my market and the culture of sending flowers is catching up in the domestic market too,” he said.