Karnataka could soon turn out to be the country’s pepper hub with production and yield in the State showing great potential.

According to the Spices Board statistics, pepper production in Karnataka has seen an eight-fold rise at 25,000 tonnes from over 21,000 hectares this year against 3,624 tonnes from 16,320 hectares in 2007-08.

Next year, though, adverse weather conditions are likely to drag production to around 20,000-22,000 tonnes.

Surprisingly, peppergrowth in Karnataka comes at a time when the country’s acreage and production of the crop have dropped sharply over the last one decade.

The area under pepper in the country has dropped from 2.18 lakh hectares in 2002 to 1.71 lakh hectares in 2012. Four years ago, the area dropped to 1.53 lakh hectares before staging a marginal recovery.

Production has dropped during the same period from 80,000 tonnes to 43,000 tonnes. It recovered to 58,000 tonnes this year.

Next year, it is estimated to fall to 45,000 tonnes says the International Pepper Community, a group of pepper-growing nations. The trade, however, pegs it around 40,000 tonnes.

Inter-crop advantage

“Pepper is doing well in Karnataka because the growers there are taking good care of the crop,” said a Spices Board official. Pepper is mainly grown as an inter-crop with coffee there.

Planters say that pepper has been the saviour for them when the coffee crop has been hit by adverse weather conditions and the menace of white stem borer.

“In estates where we grow arabica coffee, pepper has come in handy when the borer has wreaked havoc over the last few years,” a planter in Kodagu said.

The problem with Kerala is that growers have not been motivated by pepper as it is cultivated as an inter-crop.

Pepper is grown along with coconut or vegetable or rubber in Kerala, the Spices Board official said.

Kerala’s output

Pepper production in Kerala has almost halved in the last five years. During 2012-13, production is estimated at around 25,000 tonnes but this season, it could drop below 20,000 tonnes. In 2008-09, Kerala produced over 41,000 tonnes on 1.75 lakh hectares.

“Diseases such as quick wilt in Wayanad estates of Kerala have not helped matters,” said an official of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India.

The Spices Board, in its recent presentation at the International Pepper Community meet, said that four factors are affecting pepper production. They are lack of quality planting material, small and marginal holdings, existence of senile and unproductive vines and pest and diseases. All these hold good for the current situation in Kerala.

S. Kannan, Executive Director of International Pepper Community, told at the meet that increasing costs of production and labour shortage are also adding to the problems.

“Growers in Kerala do not seem to take proper care of plants affected by diseases. The vines are old and no steps have been taken to replant most of them,” said Hemanand Kishore, an exporter.

According to him, return for small growers, who make up most of the area under the crop, is a meagre Rs 8,000 a month even at current prices that are at a record Rs 500/kg . “How will any grower take interest in his crop when the return is so poor,” he asked.

The country’s pepper productivity in 2011-12 was 223 kg a hectare against 283 kg in 2010-11. Though production improved in 2012-13, it is estimated to be lower again this year.

Yield matters

Given Karnataka’s progress in pepper productivity, the country’s yield is lower primarily on account of poor crop in Kerala.

This year, a Karnataka planter said, he should get at least 120-140 catkins from a pepper vine but could get 60-70 only. “The situation could be the same or even a little worse in Kerala,” he said.

Kerala’s impact on the country’s pepper scenario can be seen from the fact that the area under pepper has dropped by 2.16 per cent annually since 2001 on a compounded basis, while production has slipped by 5.65 per cent.

During the same time, Vietnam’s acreage has improved by 14,000 hectares to 50,000 hectares but its production has doubled to over one lakh tonnes. This season, its production is estimated at a record 1.5 lakh tonnes.

The Spices Board, however, is hopeful of a turnaround in the scenario. It has now begun to focus on replanting and rejuvenation of pepper farms, farm mechanisation and train growers on various aspects of production.