Chennai: Nearly 724km south-east of Ratnagiri, a town in coastal Maharashtra, Alphonso plantations are trampling over groundnut, paddy and pulses in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district.

Fruity affair: Dandapani at his farm. Tamil Nadu farmers have taken up cultivation of Alphonsos, thus far a monopoly of the Konkan belt. K.Ganesh/Mint

Despite fertile soil fed by both the south-west and the north-east monsoons, a shrinking labour force following increased migration of farm workers to the neighbouring cities has pushed farmers growing foodgrains such as rice, lentils and groundnuts into horticulture. Fruit plantations that are harvested just once a year require far less labour than crops such as rice, where the need to plough land, remove weeds, sow seeds and harvest the crop calls for more people.

Average prices of Alphonsos are around three times more that those of the Totapuri mangoes, so mango farmers here have taken up cultivation of the pricey variety that was thus far a monopoly of Maharashtra’s Konkan belt. This has pushed the top mango variant’s acreage up by 10% every year for a total today of about 100,000 acres in Tamil Nadu, according to Prabhuram Rajagopal, who runs a nursery in Krishnagiri.

But farming practices in this area mirror those in Ratnagiri a decade ago with use of growth regulators to boost annual flowering, as well as use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that so far seem to be boosting yields. Some of Ratnagiri’s top Alphonso growers have either switched or are contemplating switching to organic farming as conventional methods are becoming increasingly unviable.

“We try to dissuade them from using growth regulators," says Kumara Krishnan of Consortium of Indian Farmers Association talking about farm inputs used to curb vegetative growth and boost annual flowering in Alphonso trees that have a tendency to bear fruits once in two years as they grow older. “It takes time to wean away the farmers from chemical farming because they too have ends to meet."

In 1995, N. Dandapani, a former bank employee whose father owned seven acres of land in Krishnagiri, stopped leasing out his land to grow his own produce. He contemplated growing either chikoos, guavas, coconuts or Alphonsos. Alphonsos won hands down due to higher returns. For example, a single coconut tree could yield about Rs200 worth of coconuts in a year, while an Alphonso tree offered 10 times more. So, 53-year-old Dandapani bought Alphonso saplings to set up a 350-tree orchard.

For the first few years, he grew urad dal, a lentil, between the Alphonso trees that were yet to bear fruits. But after the fifth year he focused singularly on the fruit-bearing trees adding, as most Alphonso farmers do, UK-based farm inputs maker Syngenta’s Cultar growth regulator.

“It is like Horlicks for mangoes," says Dandapani, comparing Cultar to GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Ltd’s malt-based energy drink.

Last year, for the first time, the National Horticulture Board invited Tamil Nadu’s Alphonso growers to stack their produce at an exhibition. The two-tonne produce that the farmers, including Dandapani, showcased sold off quickly and the southern state’s farmers will be back in the capital with their output this summer.

“While Maharashtra provides high quality Alphonso mangoes, Tamil Nadu is trying to reach out to common customers with moderate pricing to log high volume sales," says Bijay Kumar of the Delhi-based board.

Ratnagiri Alphonsos that are largely considered as table variety for consumption as fruit and not as pulp or juice, sell for Rs60-70 per kg. Tamil Nadu’s produce of the same fruit yields Rs38-40 per kg.

Last year, Dandapani, who now rakes in nearly Rs1 lakh per acre compared to half that amount when he grew lentils, sold some of his produce to Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Fresh grocery chain. Still, a majority of the mangoes grown in Tamil Nadu are being used for pulp.

G. Vijayan, managing director, Aseptic Food Products India Pvt. Ltd, a pulp-making factory in Tamil Nadu since 1999, with sales of Rs43 crore last year, has seen the number of processing units in the area jump 10-fold. Alphonso pulp, which is largely used to top-up mango pulp or juice units that get their bulk from the Totapuri variant, comprises 10-12% of production. Even six years ago he would get just 2% of his Alphonso supplies from Krishnagiri; today, nearly 40% of the stock comes from the region.

Walking through his farm, Dandapani explained that to increase the weight of the mangoes he waters the trees more than required. The November rains closer to the flowering season requires them to push this stage to January, which means they have to use chemicals to regulate flowering. Dandapani is currently experimenting with a cheaper growth regulator from China priced at about Rs3,000 a litre lower than the at least Rs5,000 a litre Cultar.

Then there are at least eight sprays that he has to use to keep away pests attacking at various stages of fruiting. Then, after harvesting the fruit, he dips them in a fungicide to preserve the fruit up to the table of the consumer. His annual cost of operations is about Rs1 lakh and is increasing.

He has noticed that pests are getting increasingly resistant over the last 10 years since the trees started bearing fruits. Although he is interested in using organic pesticides, the labour-intensive procedure to make the organic versions keeps him glued to the easy measure-dilute-spray and less manpower requiring methods of synthetic pesticides.

“Consumers are unwilling to pay for a small yet tasty fruit," says Dandapani. “The only thing people look at is the appearance, weight and size of the fruit. And we can achieve this only by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides."

Next: Ratnagiri’s mango farmers seek to banish blues with green.