Along the picturesque Kanthalloor-Perumala route in Kerala’s Idukki district, one cannot miss small makeshift shops lining the roads. Mariyamma, who runs one of the shops here, calls out to the tourists passing by, to sample some of the homemade jams she prepared using winter fruits from her orchard. On one side, her shop is stacked with a small collection of jams made from passion fruit, gooseberry (arishtam) and wild honey, and on the other side, winter fruits like apples, strawberry and orange, and even Kanthalloor garlic.
Unlike a few years ago, Mariyamma says she has been enjoying a good business ever since she has been able to show the tourists and other customers the winter vegetables and fruits of her orchard and sell some of it directly to them. Like Mariyamma, other farmers in Idukki, too, are taking to this new trend of agritourism - which involves tourism activities centred around agriculture and its operation.
Situated just 53 kms from Munnar, Marayoor and Kanthalloor regions in Kerala’s Idukki district are fast emerging as major destinations for agritourism. Winter vegetable and fruit farms, sugarcane farms and jaggery production units are some of the main attractions, which have been drawing tourists to these regions. As a result, small-scale farmers in Idukki are receiving rich dividends.
However, this was not the scenario until a few years ago. Many sugarcane farmers of Marayoor and Kanthalloor have been struggling to maintain their thin profit margin. They were forced to sell their produce, or jaggery, for Rs 45 per kg. Today, they get Rs 70 per one kilogram of jaggery, that is, a whopping jump of 55% in the selling price. What changed? The role middlemen in the business.
The role of middlemen, who usually claim a lion's share of the farmers’ profits, has been eliminated, thanks to the vigorous agritourism initiatives by the Kerala government.
How middlemen denied farmers a fair share
Forty-three-year-old Omana Balasubramanian has been engaged in sugarcane farming for the last 23 years. Omana says that she produces 500 to 600 kg of jaggery per day. She gets Rs 45 for a kilogram of jaggery through a middleman.
Omana says she has been haggling for years with the middlemen engaged in the jaggery businessmen to get a decent profit for her produce. Yet, she continued to receive a low price.
“Earlier, we had no option or medium to sell our jaggery but through middlemen vendors, who bought our produce. In fact, all sugarcane farmers in Kantalloor and Marayoor region have been dependent on middlemen. This is because no government or private agency has been procuring jaggery from the farmers directly,” she explains.
“If we refuse to sell the jaggery for the fixed rates through the middlemen, they would stop procuring from us, which, in turn, would affect our jaggery production," she adds.
Omana also alleges that middlemen parallelly earn profit by mixing low-quality jaggery that arrives from Tamil Nadu with Marayoor jaggery.
Comparing the market value of the Marayoor jaggery and those procured from Tamil Nadu, G Rajan, a middleman vendor who is also a sugarcane farmer, says, “Currently, local jaggery is available in the market at a price of Rs 30 to Rs 32. We are procuring the Marayoor jaggery from the sugarcane farmers at Rs 45 per kilogram, and this can’t be increased further.”
Tweak strategy, earn profit
Determined not to depend on middlemen anymore, Omana decided to change her method of farming and look to agritourism for better earnings.
Two years ago, Omana took a parcel of land on lease in Vettukad on the Marayoor-Kanthalloor stretch. She then erected a shed, under which, she began her jaggery production.
"Now, this facility has become one of the attractions for tourists arriving in Marayoor, as they get to watch the production process of the jaggery," Omana says. "Plus, sans all the trouble of negotiating with the middlemen, I sell my jaggery directly to tourists and enjoy the hard-earned profits of my efforts," she beams.
Every day, she sells 100 to 600 kilograms of jaggery to tourists and earns Rs 60 to Rs 70 per kilogram. “I have also prepared a special variety of jaggery named Chukkunda, made with cardamom and ginger, and sell it at Rs 100 per kilogram,” she says.
Tourists can also see original Marayoor jaggery, Kanthalloor garlic and fruits lined up at roadside shops along the Marayoor-Kanthalloor stretch.
Farmers in Kanthalloor region, too, have switched to agritourism. Babu Perumala, engaged in fruit farming, has three-and-a-half-acres of land lined with fruit plants such as apple, strawberry, passion fruit, orange, marathakkali (tamarillo), apricot, plums, saberjil, and mangoes.
Babu used to sell his fruits through a middleman. "However, two years ago, a few tourists had asked me for some farm-fresh fruits. I picked some from my orchard and gave it to them. I saw an opportunity in this, to sell my fruits directly to people, without the aid of a middleman. Since then, I have been engaging in agritourism. The highlight is that the direct sale has been assuring a reasonable market price for my products," he explains.
Babu charges a meagre amount of Rs 15 per person from those who would like to visit his orchard; and every day, he receives 100 to 150 tourists, fetching him an extra income.
How the GI tag has helped farmers
After two years of effort by the Kerala Agricultural Department, the Marayoor jaggery got the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in March 2019. Under the direction of Agricultural Minister VS Sunilkumar, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) cell of the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) is now trying to get GI tag for Kanthalloor-special garlic.
According to CR Elsi, professor and coordinator, IPR cell, KAU, the GI tag will give a renewed impetus to farmers to market their products and sell it to tourists directly.
“Kanthalloor and Vattavada villages in Idukki have been traditionally producing their special variety of garlic. Kanthalloor garlic is known for its medicinal and oil content. The Kanthalloor garlic is displayed extensively in front of shops and homes. If this garlic variety gets the GI tag, the farmers can sell it as their own traditional product," says Elsi.
Last week, Agriculture Minister VS Sunilkumar handed over the GI tag certificate to the officials of Anchunad Karimpulpadaka Vipanana Sangam, a sugarcane producers association in Kerala. The Minister also inaugurated the Marayoor Jaggery official logo release and GI tag fact sheet. “It is a punishable offence if vendors sell low quality jaggery from Tamil Nadu or other states. The punishment can include two years imprisonment and fine,” said the Minister.
Today, one can see the boards of Marayoor Jaggery displayed proudly in these regions. Every day, jaggery production sheds welcome hundreds of tourists, who watch and participate in the traditional production methods, and even buy them. “We do not charge any fee, and describe the whole process of jaggery making to them,” said Omana, who runs a jaggery production unit.
Sunny Mathew, who is working in Dubai, recently visited Omana’s unit. “What gives agritourism an edge over buying jaggery from the market is transparency. As a tourist, I am witnessing the process of making jaggery, including the raw materials that go into it. There is a satisfaction of learning something new and consuming something that is made traditionally,” Sunny told TNM as he bought three kilograms of jaggery from Omana.
Why government aid is essential
Three years ago, the state government’s Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation (Horticorp) had announced Idukki as a winter vegetable zone. This included the Kanthalloor and Vattavada regions and the Devikulam block.
Agriculture Minister VS Sunilkumar had inaugurated over Rs 11 crore worth winter vegetable and fruit production development project in Kanthalloor and Vattavada.
This came as a major boost for the farmers as until government intervention, they had to depend on middlemen.
Three years following the announcement of the project, over 2,725 hectares in Vattavada and Kanthalloor region have been cultivating seasonal vegetables and fruits, including potato, beans, guava and mango, among others. The year-long chilly weather is a huge factor in this kind of farming, and even in attracting tourists. As part of the project, the production of winter vegetables and fruits increased significantly in the Kanthalloor and Vattavada region.
According to VK Jayaprakash, President of Vattavada Winter Vegetable Farmers Society, in 2012 Horticorp began its winter vegetable procurement from Kanthalloor and Vattavada, offering farmers Rs 2 to Rs 3 above the market price. Farmers were assured a reasonable and market price.
However, three years on, the government stopped this ambitious project without offering full benefits to the farmers in the region.
“If the government procures winter vegetables and fruits from the farmers, it will provide a better price and a market to farmers. Otherwise, middlemen and vendors from Tamil Nadu will come into the picture and continue to take away the farmers’ fair share of profit,” Jayaprakash said.
In such a situation, CR Elsi points out that farmers will have to rely on agritourism. “Agritourism is the future of farming. It will eliminate the middlemen and will assure ready money for their products, an extra margin of 30-40% surplus price for the farmers. Farmers can also exclusively brand their products to tourists, who, in turn, can buy natural products from them,” says Elsi.