New Delhi: Earlier this week the agriculture ministry said that India’s production of perishable horticulture crops like fruits and vegetables touched a record 307 million tonnes in 2017-18. This is a good 27 million tonnes more than the quantity of foodgrains harvested last year.
The financial year 2017-18 also marks the sixth straight on when production of horticulture crops surpassed that of foodgrains—the difference in production only widening over the years. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18 horticulture production grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.6%, double the annual growth in foodgrain output.
The reason for the growing preference of horticulture crops for the Indian farmer is that vegetables are short duration crops that are mostly grown on small patches of land by marginal farmers, often in less than an acre of land. As land holdings become increasingly fragmented, production of vegetables ensure quick returns to farmers, compared to say, some pulse varieties that take up to six months to harvest.
The fact that farmers continue to grow perishables despite recurrent price fluctuations shows that returns are better for these compared to traditional foodgrains. This signifies a fundamental shift in Indian agriculture. Farmers are seemingly taking more risks by growing perishables where annual losses are as high as Rs32,000 crore.
Better incomes, urbanisation and higher consumption of fruits and vegetable seem to be driving demand. However, several gaps remain. First, prices crashing during peak harvest season and peaking during lean months means India needs to invest more in food processing units that are located close to the farm gate. A better cold chain network with pack houses and access to refrigerated transport can also help prolong the shelf life of fresh produce and earn better value for farmers.
Second, there seems to be little coordination between state horticulture departments who promote crops within their state without any information on what other states may be pushing their farmers to grow.
In April, as tomato wholesale prices plunged to as low as a rupee a kg and farmers destroyed their crops, it emerged that a bumper crop across several states is to blame. Indian farmers need market intelligence—a clearer idea on future demand and supply to make better crop choices.
For some years now, farmers of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are exporting bananas and grapes, respectively. These success stories can be repeated elsewhere if farmers are made aware of export markets and how to access them.
A positive for India’s horticulture story is that it is spread across the country from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, unlike foodgrains where successes post green-revolution were largely limited to northern states like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.
Better access to markets, technology and intelligence can help translate the higher perishable production to higher earnings for farmers.