Kochi: India’s cardamom growers have been forced to irrigate their fields at a time when the monsoon rains were expected to be at their peak.
Kerala, a major producer of the spice, received just 72.3cm rainfall between 1 June and 23 July, a 43% drop compared with the same period last year.
Cardamom gardens in the hill tracks of Kerala’s Idukki district and in the neighbouring areas of Tamil Nadu have started drying up, and the resulting supply crunch has pushed up prices to as much as Rs600 per kg.
“If the situation continues, cardamom production will drop by at least 40%,” said K.K. Devassia, secretary of the Cardamom Growers’ Association. India produced 9,518 tonnes of cardamom in the fiscal year to March.
“Heavy pre-summer showers had helped in early flowering of plants and a bumper crop was expected this year. But with scanty rainfall during the south-west monsoon season, flowers and buds have started withering,” he said.
Cardamom buds need humidity and low temperature to flower.
Supply constraints: Due to the low arrival of cardamom at auctions, its price has risen to Rs550-600 per kg, from Rs320 a kg last season
Poor rains have led to farmers resorting to irrigation, which is rare during the monsoon, said K.J. Madhusoodanan, deputy director at Idukki-based Indian Cardamom Research Institute, or Icri, an arm of the government’s trade promotion body, the Spices Board of India.
Irrigation will help retain moisture in the topsoil and ensure the plants do not wither. However, a favourable climate for cardamom flowering and yield is lacking and only good rains can help, Madhusoodanan said.
August to October is a crucial period for plucking cardamom. Farmers had harvested an early crop after extended pre-summer showers, but the stock appears to have been sold, said Devassia.
This was evident from the low cardamom arrivals for auctions. In the current season starting August 2007, total arrivals slumped to 5,600 tonnes from 8,300 tonnes in the previous season.
As a result, cardamom prices shot up to Rs550-600 per kg at the auctions, from about Rs320 a kg in the previous season.
“The small and marginal farmers are at the receiving end,” said N. Rajagopal, former president of the Cardamom Planters Association at Bodinaykannur in Tamil Nadu.
“While big farmers are able to maintain their gardens by irrigation, others could land in debt. If the monsoon continues to be the same, production could drop by more than 50%.”
However, Icri director J. Thomas said it was too early to make an assessment.
“It is true India might not have a bumper crop but the summer showers have seen an early crop. If the monsoon gathers momentum in the coming days, production can be at the normal levels of 11,000-12,000 tonne,” he said.
“A true picture of the production can be gauged only after August when the monsoon season comes to an end. There is also the prospect of a good north-east monsoon,” Thomas added.