Horticulture farmers defy drought to reap a bumper harvest

Better incomes, urbanization and higher consumption of fruits and vegetable driving demand, show data from National Sample Survey Organisation


Overall, the value of horticulture crops rose faster than that of foodgrains. Photo: Hindustan Times
Overall, the value of horticulture crops rose faster than that of foodgrains. Photo: Hindustan Times

New Delhi: Access to irrigation and higher consumption pushed up the production of fruits and vegetables in the past two years of crippling drought, while foodgrain output flagged.

According to the second advance estimates of production recently released by the agriculture ministry, horticulture production rose from 277.3 million tonnes in 2013-14—a bumper crop year which also saw normal rains—to 282.8 million tonnes in 2015-16, a year in which as many as 11 states declared a drought and the south-west monsoon saw a deficit of 14%.

The estimates show that while production of fruits rose from 88.9 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 90.5 million tonnes in 2015-16, production of vegetables increased from 162.9 million tonnes to 166.5 million tonnes during this period.

During the same period, production of foodgrains fell nearly 5% from a record 265 million tonnes to 252 million tonnes.

Further, 2015-16 marks the fourth straight year that India’s horticulture production will outstrip foodgrains output—horticulture contributes over a third to India’s total agriculture production now—underlining a structural change underway in Indian agriculture. Estimates show that in 2015-16, horticulture production exceeded foodgrains output by over 30 million tonnes. In 2012-13, the difference was just 11.3 million tonnes.

The fact that horticulture crops are grown in less than 5% of the country’s gross cropped area, compared to over 63% of the area used to grow foodgrains, further shows the success of small and marginal farmers growing fruits and vegetables.

How did horticulture manage to escape the impact of drought? Previous data released by the farm ministry (Horticulture Statistics at a Glance, 2015) shows that unlike foodgrains, horticulture crops survive poor rains due to better irrigation.

The numbers show that 71% of area under tomatoes and 86% of area under potatoes have access to irrigation. Eight vegetables that make up 74% of the total vegetable production in the country have 73% access to irrigation.

In comparison, only 50% of the area under foodgrains has access to irrigation. Barring wheat, which is an irrigated crop, irrigation access varies from just 16% for pulses to 59% for rice.

The second advance estimate of horticulture production shows production of major crops like onions and potatoes increased over the past two years. While production of potatoes rose from 41.5 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 45.6 million tonnes in 2015-16, onion production rose from 19.4 million tonnes to 20.2 million tonnes.

However, production of tomatoes—another major crop which is now selling at over Rs.60 a kilo—fell from a high of 18.7 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 16.4 million tonnes in 2014-15, before recovering to 18.2 million tonnes in 2015-16.

What drove the growth in horticulture production? Better incomes, urbanization and higher consumption of fruits and vegetable seem to be driving the demand, show data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). While monthly consumption of cereals per person in rural areas declined from 13.4kg in 1993-94 to 11.2kg in 2011-12, consumption of vegetables went up from 2.7kg to 4.3kg during this period.

Schemes like the National Horticulture Mission launched in 2005-06 played a pivotal role in aggressively pushing production of fruits and vegetables across states, said T. Haque, director of Delhi-based Council for Social Development, and former head of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.

Haque added that while better incomes drove demand for horticulture crops and led to more farmers taking up production, lack of infrastructure facilities like cold chain and post-harvest technology continue to be a challenge. “For potatoes, most cold storage facilities are still monopolized by traders. Also, the government could use the model of aggregation like farmer producer organizations to ensure better prices to farmers,” he said.

The boost to horticulture production did not always translate into better incomes for farmers. For instance, a few months back, onion prices fell to a low of Rs.5 per kg in wholesale markets in Maharashtra. Similarly, after potato prices fell to a low of Rs.2 per kg April last year, farmers in the largest potato-growing state of Uttar Pradesh left the harvested tuber to rot in the fields.

Yet, overall, the value of horticulture crops rose faster than that of foodgrains. For instance, the value of horticulture production rose by 28% between 2008-09 and 2012-13, compared to a rise of 10.5% for foodgrains, oilseeds and fibre crops during this period.

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