Chennai: If it is mango, it’s got to be Alphonso. Or so it would be for most Mumbaikars. Barring a few atheists who disbelieve in the Alphonso’s heavenly taste, this golden, juicy variant with its intense sweetness is the undisputed champion of the 1,500 Indian varieties—the Tendulkar of mangoes.
Still, many Alphonso growers spread over in south-western Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, with its red loamy soil and a salty sea wind ideal for fleshy and sugary Alphonsos, are facing bitter times. Over the past decade, input costs have spiked, while fruit quality has faltered. But some farmers are bent on restoring the glory of Ratnagiri’s Hapus, the local name for Alphonso, by switching to organic farming.
Alternate remedy: Pictured is a pest control system. Farmers are going organic to combat deteriorating yield caused by the use of chemicals. K. Ganesh/Mint.
With 50% of the world’s annual mango production, India is the biggest mango producer in the world. Maharashtra produced just 5.6% of the mangoes in the country in 2008-09, behind Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. But Maharashtra’s 1.6 million acres of Alphonso plantations make it the largest producer of this expensive variant.
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With 3,000 Alphonso trees, Umesh Lanjekar is one of the biggest growers in Ratnagiri. The 46-year-old, third-generation farmer was previously known for his penchant to pick up the latest farm gadgets, pesticides and fertilizers.
In 1998, he bought a German-made, shoulder-strap-on grass cutting tool and wandered around a part of his 70-acre estate slicing weeds that he intended to use for compost—decomposed plant and animal material that over time becomes fertile black soil that improves pest and disease resistance of the crop. This was Lanjekar’s first step towards organic farming as he tried to steer clear of synthetic chemicals he had used for nearly two decades to feed nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to his trees for maximum yields.
The catalyst for this farmer’s switch? “Bekaar (useless)”, says Lanjekar to describe the deteriorating quality of fruit. Over a decade, not only did a single fruit’s weight halve to 125g, but it was also losing its sweetness and aroma.
Alphonsos have been in the Konkan area of Maharashtra—sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats—for nearly 300 years. But it was only in the late 1980s that the business got a boost thanks to increasing government subsidies. During this period, Cultar, a growth regulator marketed by Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta, became widely popular.
Cultar, or paclobutrazol, was used to catalyse early flowering, inducing fruits sooner. This supported an early market entry, earning premium prices from traders. Cultar stunted the growth of existing stems, but induced new shoots that developed flowers.
This was also the time the south-west monsoon, in what may have been a sign of global warming, was hitting this belt in May instead of June. So it seemed imperative to get the trees to fruit sooner. If it rained as the Alphonsos developed white spots—signalling the ripening stage when the shoulders of the fruit arched nicely to leave a dimpled top—it would result in a fungal attack and crop losses.
There was another reason for Lanjekar’s jump towards Cultar that he tested on about 50 of his trees. Though young Alphonso trees bear fruits every year, they may do so only once in two years as they grow older. The trees in his farm averaged 50 years and to get them to flower year after year he started using the growth regulator. But after a 200% jump in yield the first year, things looked bleak.
“The trees that now flowered more than usual and every year were turning weaker and more prone to disease and pest attacks,” says Lanjekar in Marathi.
A Syngenta agent, who didn’t want to be named, said that the weakening of the trees may have happened because the farmer may not have increased fertilizer usage by one-and-a-half times every year he applied Cultar to provide adequate nutrients for the plant.
Efforts to reach Syngenta were unsuccessful.
“The growth regulators cannot be blamed for the dangers posed to the Alphonso crop in the Konkan region,” says Bharat Salvi, a horticulturist at Regional Fruit Research Station at Vengurla near Ratnagiri. Nearly 24,000 litres of Cultar worth about Rs12 crore was sold in the Konkan region last year, he says. “The key threat to Alphonso plantations in the region are the changes in weather that has reduced yield this year to just 20%.” Cyclone Phyan that struck this region in November during the peak flowering season uprooted more than 46,000 mango trees in the area, causing a dramatic drop in output this year.
Towards the mid-1990s, Lanjekar’s fertilizer costs were increasing by 10% every year. Pests, such as the mango hopper that attacks during the key flowering season hurting yield, became resistant despite doubling the rate of pesticide sprays and employing more people to do so. “It won’t be long before you hear about suicides in the Konkan belt similar to those in Vidarbha,” says Lanjekar. “For my long-term survival I had to control costs because the market price of the mangoes fluctuates.”
He now uses compost produced in his farm as a fertilizer and organic repellents with garlic and basil as a base to ward off the pests pushing down input costs by 75%. Indian mango imports were until recently prohibited in several developed countries because of poisonous pesticide residue on the fruits. Three years ago, Lanjekar started exporting to countries such as Germany and Switzerland.
For nearly five years after switching to organic farming in 1998-99, Lanjekar saw his farm take a beating with one-fourth the previous yield, a minuscule 40-50 tonnes. This initial slide in production is one of the key deterrents for many farmers to make the switch to organic.
But his efforts truly bore fruits starting 2004 as the kidney-shaped produce in his farm looked, smelled and tasted better. Now just 1,500 of his trees, or half his plantation, bear fruits every year. But with a yield of 145kg a tree, which adds up to more than 200 tonnes every season to log more than Rs1 crore in sales, Lanjekar is relieved.
“Farmers understand that they will earn a premium for organic produce, that profits are higher in exports,” says Vivek Bhide, who has a 50-acre farm with 2,000 trees in Ratnagiri, but hasn’t shifted to organic measures as he cannot afford losses for three-five years during the transition from chemical to organic farming. “But the government needs to offer compensation to the farmer for his survival during his transition years into organic farming,” he adds.