Tourists at India’s strawberry capital, Mahabaleshwar, in Maharashtra might just get to eat the fruit for free next week. Faced with an extended strawberry season—more than 20 tonnes of the fruit are still being harvested every day—cultivators plan to invite tourists to the hill town to their farms where they can feast on the highly perishable fruit.
The arrival of the country’s most favoured fruit, the mango, and an extended grape season have also added to the farmers’ woes as consumers, who have had their fill of strawberries this year, are now giving it the cold shoulder in favour of the other two.
Local farmers plan to put up billboards along the way from Panchgani, another hill town in Maharashtra, to Mahabaleshwar, inviting visitors to their farms to eat as much as they want of the fruit.
A month-and-a-half ago, farmers in India’s strawberry capital were on top of the world, celebrating a record harvest that translated into huge profits for the region’s 800-odd cultivators. Rising demand for the fruit from cities and large orders from companies such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd and retail chains such as Reliance Retail (the retail arm of Reliance Industries Ltd) meant that farmers took home more money than ever before for their crop.
What originally seemed like a dream run, with more than 300 tonnes of the fruit being dispatched to cities such as Mumbai and Delhi every day, has now turned into a nightmare of sorts. The deluge of strawberries in the twin hill towns has led to a crash in prices. “At one point a fortnight ago, it was not even viable for us to pick the fruit since we need to pay for labour, packing and despatch, besides commissions in markets such as Mumbai. How can one make money after all these if the price crashes to Rs20-22 per kg?” asks a farmer.
The region’s three cultivators co-operatives have come up with a clutch of measures, including the tourist-plan; they have also tried to convince units to pick up additional supplies. That has brought some relief, but things could be better, says Balasaheb Bhilare, president of the All India Strawberry Cultivators Association.
Inviting tourists to the farms to eat strawberries for free could help. The farmers are hoping that once at the farm, tourists will end up buying at least a couple of kgs of the fruit to be carried back home, according to Kisan Bhilare, vice-president of the Strawberry Growers Association.
There is still a healthy demand for strawberries in markets outside Mumbai, but the lack of infrastructure, such as cold chains, makes it impossible to transport the fruit to distant markets.
Local fruit processing units have bought approximately 600 tonnes of strawberries this season. Tasty Bites Eatables Ltd has picked up almost 200 tonnes, which it will freeze and supply to the market during the lean season.
With temperatures rising and summer around the corner, farmers are now hoping that the strawberry season will end in the next fortnight.