Bears and black gold

Bears and black gold

Just after the foundation was laid for our house here in Akathethara and we were ready to shop for just the right bricks, we stumbled into pepper season. Our plot had over 60 vines, and Old George, the previous owner, said he would show us how to harvest the pepper.

He called it “black gold", a phrase he obviously thought he had invented himself. He was the first farmer in these parts to plant pepper, and he had made good money from it. He said pepper generally sold at Rs250 a kg and was sure to shoot up to Rs350.

Instead of a ladder, George used a bamboo pole, trimming the thorns to about six inches to form steps of a sort. He climbed a few steps, tied the pole to the tree, climbed some more, tied some more.

The pole was skewed, so once in a while it would twist and flip us to the ground. Sometimes we’d thrust our faces into a spider web. Our feet would slide on the cylindrical thorns. Pepper vines are a favourite hangout of largish red ants called sour ants because of their taste. They fold a leaf into a samosa shape and gather in frightening numbers inside. Often, perched 15ft up a pole, we’d reach out for a pepper catkin and knock one of the samosas. The ants would boil over and instantly be in our hair and clothes. Trying to come down swiftly but safely, we’d be bitten many times by the time we reached the ground.

Once we plucked the catkins we put them in sacks and treaded them to separate the corns from the strings. Then we blanched the pepper, strained it, and dried it for a few days. Lastly, we sieved it. In all, that first harvest took us six weeks. The final weight of dried black pepper is generally one quarter that of the green catkins first plucked. We ended up with 15kg.

In the midst our unthinking activity, I checked the agri-commodities column in the paper. Pepper stood at Rs90 a kg. Unlike George, we knew about the then recently signed WTO, and we realized that prices would fall further (or, as the financial papers put it, Indian pepper would become more competitive in the international market). I kicked myself for the futility of the past six weeks. By the time we went to market, the price was Rs65 a kg, and our gross proceeds amounted to Rs1,000. Wehad spent much more than that on fertilizing the old vines, and we had planted 100new vines on George’s advice. We had lost precious construction time.

When George next talked of watering the new vines, I snapped that it was not worth our while. Even in my irritation, it occurred to me that if these prices had collapsed on George’s watch, they would have finished him. I never did meet a profit-making pepper cultivator, in Palakkad or in Wayanad, unless he was running a homestay on the side.

The second year, I was on my own and applied my mind to a rational harvest. We had lost a few vines to drought by then but there were still 50. I bought a proper iron ladder that would take me 10ft up a tree, no further. As I harvested each vine, I cut it off at my highest reach and tore down the upper part. Neighbours tutted at my destructive methods, but I told them I was preserving the rest of the vine from drought the coming year. I had just thought that up, and when most of the vines survived the summer, I declared it a sound idea. I still made no money, but I wasted less energy, and our organic pepper was far more flavourful than store-bought pepper. Good enough for a hobby farmer.

One year, prices fell to Rs53 a kg, and I packed most of the pepper to give as gifts. Everyone loved the taste. By then a year’s supply of pepper was cheaper than a single New Zealand apple.

Last year, I phoned the owner of Seenu’s Pickles, which I thought was a mom-and-pop outfit, to ask whether he would buy our pepper green for pickling. I estimated we could offer him 40kg. He bought by the tonne, he told me. He was very nice about it.

Then prices unexpectedly rose to Rs135 a kg, and an organic foods shop in Coimbatore bought our pepper at well over even that listed price.

Soon it will be harvest time. Over morning chai, we mull over headlines that say Bears Drag Down Pepper Futures, or Pepper Continues Sideways Movement, whatever that might mean. In any case, I’m looking forward to tasting this year’s pepper. Some of our new vines are yielding. Saar talks of buying a longer ladder. We stand ready to brave the spiders and sour ants. And the bears.

This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.

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