Mahabaleshwar: Farmers in India’s strawberry capital have been bitten by the business bug.
A record harvest of 10,000 tonnes of the fruit, two-and-a-half times last year’s produce, and growing demand from new retailers and food processors have prompted the region’s 800-odd farmers to don their entrepreneurial hats. And with good reason.
Hindustan Lever Ltd has already conducted its first round of negotiations with the farmers’ society to procure 125 tonnes of strawberry. A Belgium-based company, which manufactures gourmet conserves, preserves and jams, has also placed orders for 100 tonnes of the fruit this year, with a strong likelihood that its import needs could be 20 times higher next year. For several days now, some 600kg of strawberries are going every day to retailer Reliance Fresh in Hyderabad.
“Indians have developed a fondness for the fruit in the last two years, which is reflecting in the consumption pattern,” says Balasaheb Bhilare, president of the All India Strawberry Growers Association.
Bhilare should know, considering that Pune city, which was consuming 500-700kg of the fruit daily last year, is now buying and consuming six tonnes of the fruit every day. Consumption in not-so-faraway Mumbai is estimated at about 60 tonnes every day. And, based on what the farmers here told Mint, the consumption of strawberries in Delhi is also rising sharply.
Because of the bumper crop as well as a wide range of potential buyers, farmers in the picturesque twin hill towns of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar on the western ghats, 1,372m above sea level, are an extremely busy lot these days, working 14 hours every day.
Over the last couple of months, farmers’ groups have fanned out directly into Pune and Mumbai to try and strike deals with organised retailers. Others are tapping large retailers in New Delhi.
Overseas buyers, especially European, are attracted to local strawberries partly because of the decision of the Maharashtra government to declare the twin towns as eco-sensitive zones, with farmers now using only eco-friendly pesticides and fungicides.
Meanwhile, back home, a bumper harvest has also meant that prices are falling and thus more affordable for a lot more fruit lovers.
Strawberries cost between Rs250-300 a kg in December when the first flush fruit comes in, drops to Rs120 in January and further to Rs80 this month, at the peak of the harvest season. With the crop in the region expected to last till early March, consumers can also look forward to finding the fruit in the market for an extended season this year.
As Krishna Bhilare, vice-president of the All India Strawberry Growers Association, puts it: “When strawberries are sold at the price of apple, more and more fall in love with this fruit.”
Strawberry farmers are also benefiting from the upswing in demand from the food processing industry. An estimated 15% of their produce is bought by the likes of Kwality Wall’s, the flagship ice cream brand of Hindustan Lever, and local brands such as Mapro, Manama and Mala, which manufacture a range of fruit-based jams, jellies and squashes.
“India has the potential to be a large producer of strawberries, but the government has to ensure that there is infrastructure in place including a cold-chain to ensure that it can be transported all over the country without loss to the cultivator,” says Mayur Vora, managing director of Mapro Foods Pvt Ltd, the Panchagani-based maker of Mapro-branded jams, crushes, jellies and ice creams.
While a handful of farmers cultivated strawberry in the hill towns from the remains of the plants left behind by the Britishers, strawberry cultivation for commercial production began in the cool climates of Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar in 1989 when Ambarish Karvat of Mumbai set up a pilot project with strawberry plants imported from California.
The fruit caught the imagination of the local farmers who quickly adopted the technology and the imported plants. Production has increased rapidly in nearly two decades.
Farmers in this region now have 1,450 acres under strawberry cultivation, producing 87% of the total crop in India.
Karvat’s company, Yupaa, which offers consultancy services to aspiring strawberry farmers, has set up farms for cultivators in Nainital, Jammu, Ooty and parts of Bangalore.