Horticulture: The new story of Indian agriculture

Small farmers reaped a bumper crop defying a drought and despite price shocks and pest-related risks

Despite these risks, horticulture has emerged as a bright spot of Indian agriculture.  Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Despite these risks, horticulture has emerged as a bright spot of Indian agriculture. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: Small farmers across India reaped a bumper crop of fruits and vegetables in 2015-16 defying a widespread drought. India’s horticulture output crossed a record 283 million tonnes, shows the third advance estimate released by the agriculture ministry on Monday.

However, the story is not just about a record harvest during a drought year—primarily due to better access to irrigation—but also a structural change underway in Indian agriculture where farmers are moving toward high-value horticulture crops.

Being short-duration crops, and as they can be grown in very small plots of land—say one-tenth of an acre—farmers now prefer to grow more vegetables. These crops ensure a quicker cash flow, unlike say, pulses, which may take more than six months from sowing to marketing.

While 2015-16 marks the fourth straight year of horticulture production outstripping foodgrains output, the other story is that the horticulture boom is spread across the country, and not limited to the erstwhile foodgrains-based green revolution states like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.

A look at the data shows that states like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are among leading fruit growers in the country. For vegetables, states in the top 10 list include West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

Also read: Which are the horticulture hotspots of India?

However, increased production of vegetables have failed to cool down prices—in June and July, retail prices rose by over 14% year-on-year. This is due to inefficiencies in the supply chain and a lack of post-harvest management. India has built cold storages for potato but not a network of pack houses and refrigerated vehicles to transport the harvest quickly to markets.

The result is that while farmers in Karnataka were abandoning tomatoes by the roadside as prices crashed, consumers in Delhi were paying more than Rs.25 per kg. The story of Maharashtra’s onion growers is no different.

However, price risks are only a part of the problem faced by horticulture farmers. The new breed of high-value crops are also leading to newer pests like Tuta absoluta—a fingernail sized pest which travelled all the way from Latin America—forcing farmers from five states to destroy their crops last year.

Despite these risks, horticulture has emerged as a bright spot of Indian agriculture. Fruits and vegetables are mostly grown by marginal and small farmers (with less than 2 hectares of land). This means that resource-poor farmers are likely to have benefitted most from the growth in horticulture sector. More so, because the value of the horticulture output grew more than double compared with all other crops put together in the four years between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

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