As you enter the small town of Vazhakulam near Thodupuzha in Idukki district, the pineapple is everywhere. There is a pineapple market, a research centre near the market, headload workers busy loading sacks of the fruit on to lorries, unloading and carrying them to shops, scores of lorries loaded with the fruit, while most shops have boards that say ‘pineapple trade’.
If the town is busy with pineapple trade, move a little interior and sprawling pineapple plantations are a common sight.
If farming means rubber cultivation for Kottayam, it’s pineapple for Vazhakulam. And the fruit has changed the economics of the people in the town, with 80% of the famers here involved in cultivating the fruit.
The brand Vazhakulam pineapple has become so popular over the years that the people here don’t spare anyone who is not familiar with the name. Four lakh people are directly or indirectly engaged in pineapple farming or related activities.
Pineapple is one of the fruits that is being exported from Kerala and the market for the Vazhakulam brand spreads from Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, to name a few Indian cities. Outside India, the brand has developed and sustains a consistent market in the Gulf countries.
What more? The Vazhakulam pineapple was given the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2009 under the Agricultural-Horticultural category.
Peculiarities of the Vazhakulam brand
The pineapple being cultivated by the farmers in Vazhakulam is the Mauritius variety. It is rich in carotene, vitamins and minerals. The climate and the soil at Vazhakulam is appropriate for the fruit to grow. Though farmers also used to cultivate the Q variety earlier, in due course, given the time taken for the Q variety to reap, they switched over to the Mauritius variety. The time to cultivate the crop is 18 months for the Q variety while it is between nine and 12 months for the Mauritius variety.
The Mauritius variety of pineapple is known as Vazhakulam Kannara and a fruit weighs anywhere from 1.3 to 1.6 kg.
The Mauritius variety
It is conical in shape and golden in colour with a tempting aroma and delicious content. The juice of the variety is sweeter with less acidity per cent of 0.5 to 0.7%. The storage period of the Vazhakulam variety is longer compared to other varieties and it is free from chemicals unlike most of the other varieties.
Pineapple as intercrop
Pineapple is being cultivated as an intercrop with rubber. Ample rains are a requirement for the crop, but of course not in excess. Thodupuzha and surrounding areas normally get plenty of rains during the monsoon. The peak sale season is from September to May.
“In the past, pineapple was cultivated here as a partition between plots of land. But over the last three or four decades the cultivation has grown. Educated youth foraying into pineapple cultivation and farming on large scale/ industrial basis are the prime reasons for pineapple farming to flourish and become the prime livelihood of the people in the region,” says Vazhakulam Block Panchayat President Jose Perumpallikunnel.
Jose has also been a pineapple farmer for the past 35 years. “The Vazhakulam pineapple is mostly used for juice. The taste of the Mauritius variety makes it outstanding. The fruit is shipped to many cities in the country like Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and even Jammu and Kashmir. Though some other varieties have more life we prefer to cultivate the Mauritius variety for the taste and the short growing period. The life of the Mauritius variety is seven to eight days,” he explains.
Assuming a market price of Rs 20 per kg, a rough estimate suggests that the turnover of the pineapple sale in Vazhakulam is about Rs 800 crore.
“80% of the revenue comes from sales outside the state; inside the state the consumption is just 20% of the whole produce. It can’t be said that there is a remarkable rise in the turnover over the years. The plant has to be uprooted and replanted every three years, so we can’t say that there is consistent growth in the turnover. But there has been an increase, two-three years ago, the gross turnover was Rs 500 crore, which has now become Rs 800 crore,” Jose says.
Challenges faced by farmers
The non-availability of land for hire on lease and the growing demand for the fruit has forced some famers to shift to other parts of the state like Punalur and Pathanamthitta and to other states like Karnataka.
The dearth of farm labourers is another problem for the farmers. Some farmers have hired labourers from other states to work in the plantations.
“There are nearly 15 labourers working in our plantation, all from Assam. Since they have been working here for the past several years, they are now skilled at the work. It needs utmost attention in every step, from spraying pesticides to plucking the fruit when it’s ripe,” says Hussain, who has been working as a supervisor in the plantation for 30 years.
“There is no price stability, the frequent fluctuation in price poses a big challenge for us. The government should take measures to ensure price stability or else it will hit the livelihoods of thousands of people. The non-availability of land to hire on lease for cultivation is another challenge,” says Siby George, a farmer.
Loss due to floods
The rains that have unleashed havoc across the state have had an impact on the pineapple cultivation too, with every farmer incurring loss.
“I have been farming on nearly 200 acres and my loss runs into lakhs. That would be the case of every farmer engaged in the cultivation,” said Saji Molakkunnel, a farmer.
“For the Vazhakulam farmers, the loss incurred will be around Rs 200 crores at a rough estimate. The loss is not just about crop loss – the manure applied has been washed away in the rain water and the plants would take only 20% if we apply 1 kg of manure to one plant. This affects the size of the crop and there will be a weight reduction of 200 gm per crop. This would in turn lead to reduction in the price. A fruit harvested in the first year of farming would weigh 1.6 kg, 1.3 kg in the second year and one kg in the third year. With the reduction in weight, the price will fall by Rs 6 per fruit,” said Biju M Jose, a member of Pineapple Traders Association in Vazhakulam.