Agri Business

Drought ground zero: Crestfallen Kerala plantation farmers look to sky for succour

V Sajeev Kumar Kochi | Updated on April 04, 2019 Published on April 04, 2019

Panic stations Sadasiva Subramaniam, Secretary, Kerala Cardamom Growers Association, showing poor panicle formation in cardamom plants due to the base drying up. Production in Idukki district, a key growing area, is believed to have fallen by 50 per cent   -  V Sajeev Kumar

Last year’s floods were followed by rising temperatures; many crops have been hit hard, with cardamom, rubber and tea growers the worst affected

Guruswamy, a 71-year-old cardamom farmer in Santhanpara, in Kerala’s Idukki district, struggles to articulate if it is the devastating floods last year or the emerging drought conditions this year that have hit his crops worst.

While the gushing waters washed off a considerable portion of the crop from his eight-acre plantation last August, the scorching heat since last month has withered Guruswamy’s cardamom plants. Indeed, the vagaries of the weather have reduced his yield by more than half from 3,500 kg in previous years.

 

Weather vagaries

“There is a 30 per cent drop in cardamom production this summer alone. I have been cultivating for the last 15 years or so, through scientific methods which had given me higher yields. The scorching heat this year has dried up both plants as well as water resources in the region,” a visibly upset Guruswamy told BusinessLine at the Puttady Cardamom Auction Centre.

“Farmers are now at the mercy of rain gods. We normally get at least 3-4 good showers in March alone. But there is hardly any sign of rain now. Cardamom flowering starts with summer rain”, he said.

 

Sadasiva Subramaniam, Secretary, Kerala Cardamom Growers’ Association, said that there was a distributed pattern in rains in the Idukki region till 1990. But climate change and erratic rain patterns have made things worse for all crops, resulting in water scarcity for irrigation. There have been significant changes in climate, particularly in the last 4-5 years. Last year’s copious summer rains helped farmers with a good yield. But the subsequent monsoon, followed by high winds and landslides, dashed all their hopes.

Losing the edge?

Idukki is a major centre for small cardamom production, meeting 80 per cent of the country’s demand. The Vandanmedu region has long been classified as an ‘A’ grade centre for cardamom production, for the assured quantum of rain, hospitable weather and the elevation. Of late, it is being apprehended that the region is losing the edge due to changes in the weather pattern. Several areas now record a day temperature above 36 degrees Celsius (maximum) against 30 degrees Celsius a couple of years ago. Cardamom production in the district is believed to have plummeted by 50 per cent from 25,000 tonnes.

A majority of farmers in the region own small and marginal holdings, ranging between 10 cents and 3.4 acres on an average. They have not been able to benefit from cardamom prices surging above ₹1,500/kg at auctions. There is no stock available with them either. Since they are small and marginal farmersthey are often coerced to sell their produce at distress prices at the earliest soon after the harvest, Subramaniam said, adding that if the summer is prolonged, the flowering and maturity of capsules will be affected resulting in delay in launching the next season.

 

Cardamom is a labour-intensive crop and the shortage of workers is affecting production. Except drying, all related work is carried out by manual labour, including planting, picking and weeding. Almost 90 per cent of the workers are from Tamil Nadu (Idukki is a border district) . Not much labour migration to Idukki takes place these days as the Tamil Nadu government’s incentives have taken the sheen off plantation work for labourers. Cardamom growers now depend on migrant labourers from North-Eastern States, Subramaniam said.

Climate change

Experts in the plantations sector say that the new situation emerging due to climate changes poses a major threat to the viability of not only cash crops but other segments in the State as well. Plantations are the worst hit due to the erratic pattern in weather as a majority of the crops are cultivated under rain-fed conditions.

An analysis of last year’s extreme weather revealed that the drought in February, March and April and the high data temperature regime had affected even mid- to high-elevation areas, including Wayanad, Nelliampathy and parts of Idukki.

Soon after the summer and pre-monsoon rains in May, severe storms hit cardamom- and rubber-growing areas, damaging yielding plants. The high-intensity monsoon rains and resultant floods caused irreparable damage to the highly eco-sensitive Western Ghats.

The North-East monsoon was a total failure last year and a majority of the agricultural areas received only scanty rainfall after October. This has reduced crop production, besides triggering high pest and disease incidence. Some areas in the state have recorded plant fatalities, resulting in long-term repercussions on crops. The winter season started with a dry spell and clear skies, bringing down the ambient temperature especially in high elevation areas to below –4 degree, wreaking havoc on standing crops, especially tea. Changing weather in the vulnerable Western Ghats calls for policy interventions to promote biodiversity along with sustainable agriculture with utmost urgency, experts said.

Pepper loses sting

The exceptionally hot conditions in Kerala have damaged the pepper crop and standing wines. The unusual hot and humid weather reign at a time when the sector is seeking to resurrect itself from last year’s floods. Workers are loath to carry out plucking under the sun as they fear sun stroke. Many farmers could not complete the harvest as the spikes on the vines have dried up. The yields have been converted into light berries due to over heat, said Kishore Shamji, Coordinator, Indian Pepper and Spice Traders, Growers, Planters Consortium (Kerala Chapter).

Taking into account all these factors and based on the feedback received from the primary markets, Shamji said pepper production in the 2019 calendar year is likely to drop below 50,000 tonnes. The industry had anticipated and projected the domestic output in 2019 to 70-75,000 tonnes. Reports suggest that production in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh may be hit due to existing drought-like conditions in these two States.

Rubber: Mixed bag

A rise in temperatures has made an impact on rubber production as well. Compared to last year, the temperature was relatively high this March. . Last year’s highest temperature of 38.5 degrees Celsius at the Rubber Research Institute of India was recorded in April . This year, in March itself the temperature rose to that level.

Compared to 45,000 tonnes in March last year, production during March 2019 is expected to come down to 30,000-35,000 tonnes. The production in January this year is 75,000 tonnes against 73,000 tonnes last year. As for February, the production shows a decline from 52,000 tonnes last year to 48,000 tonnes this year, sources in the rubber sector said. However, the total natural rubber production during the current fiscal is expected to cross the anticipated 6.3 lakh tonnes as the output during December and January was satisfactory.

In the rubber growing tracts, variation in temperature and humidity is not so marked as that of rainfall. The average annual rainfall ranges from 2,000- to 4,500 mm. The dry period extends from two to five months a year and the rainfall distribution becomes more uneven. The temperature remains warm and humidity high throughout the year, sources added.

Pest attacks plague tea

Erratic weather has been impacting the tea crop in the last few years, with inconsistent rain, high summer and low winter temperatures giving a raise pest incidences. The downpour in July and August had impacted tea crops in Wayanad by 50 per cent. Whilst some crop recovery happened in September and October, the early onset of winter conditions and the unusually low temperatures in December and January dealt a further blow to tea crops, said N Dharmaraj, Director, Harrisons Malayalam.

Temperatures dropped for many days to below 12 degrees Celsius, causing cessation of photosynthetic activity. Summer rains until now this year are lower by 30 per cent and day temperatures are up by up to 4 degrees Celsius compared to last year. This has led to major evapotranspiration losses. The Wayanad soil — with clayey quality and relatively high water retention capacity — has prevented capital loss of bushes. However, cropping has been affected by 30 to 40 per cent between November and March. The high day temperatures and sporadic but scanty rains have accelerated pest build-up, he said.

In the Munnar region, a majority of the tea bushes are showing severe drought symptoms such as leaf defoliation and drying up of plants. The high ambient temperature has aggravated the incidence of red spider and purple mite, which will further harm the sector, plantation sources said.

Coffee output set to fall

The current dry weather is worrying coffee and pepper growers and has aggravated the damage already caused to a point of no return, said a veteran coffee planter in Wayanad.

2019 started off with somerain and farmers were hopeful of their prospects. . Coffee needs a minimum of half-an-inch of rain to force out blossoms, which then flower on the eighth or ninth day. If the rainfall is scattered or scant, a large number of flowers stop short of blossoming fully and dry up. Today, the forlorn farmers are looking to the skies as the weather forecasts hold the promise of some rain. the planter said.

Lack of adequate blossom showers and timely supporting showers have dashed the hopes of coffee growers. Added to this is the disturbingly high temperatures and the intensity of the heat experienced in the region. The average coffee yield has dwindled in the last year and it is feared it is going to be the same story again.

Coffee acreage in the district is 67,366 hectares and around 60,000 growers are those with small holdings. The post-blossom crop forecast of the Coffee Board estimates the robusta coffee production in 2018-19 fiscal at 58,000 tonnes, while the growers are expecting a 30-40 per cent drop.

Published on April 04, 2019
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