The higher-than-normal temperatures coupled with the scanty pre-monsoon rains are likely to take a toll on the plantation crops in South India. Almost all plantation districts have received deficit pre-monsoon rains that’s seen impacting the output of key commodities such as tea, coffee, rubber and cardamom among others.

The cumulative rainfall deficiency for the period from March 1 to May 3 in key plantations districts was Kodagu (- 83 per cent), Chikkamagaluru (-30 per cent), Hassan (-72), Idukki (-83), Wayanad (-66), Pathanamthitta (-35), Kollam (-58), Thrissur (-81), Palakkad (-86), Kannur (-92), Nilgiris (-73) and Salem (-99).

Affecting quality

Cherian M George, Chairman, Upasi Tea Committee, said tea crop volumes in April compared to last year are estimated to be 20 to 50 per cent lower and with the heatwave things will get worse in May. These adverse weather conditions will not only affect the volume but also impact the quality of tea. Current atmospheric conditions are even conducive for higher pest incidence.

For instance, he said the Wayanad tea growing areas between January and April experienced 1.37 degrees of higher average temperature compared with the decennial average. On the other hand, the average rainfall during the period was 15.9 cm whereas this year, it was 2.5 cm only in isolated areas.

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The Chinnakanal area in Munnar also saw almost 1 degree higher temperature. For the first time, Munnar recorded 29-30 degree temperature on April 29 and 30. “What is very significant is the night temperatures are also high leading to low or no metabolic activities in plants”, George said.

Both higher temperatures and lower rainfall have been in the backdrop of 45 per cent deficient rainfall in 2023 which made the drought acute. Besides, the heat wave is causing the elimination of leaf moisture leading to crinkling of the tea leaf and defoliation. It also affects not only the present generation of crops but the future generation of crops too, he said.

Spiralling costs

With lower production and drought elevation measures adopted by plantations, the cost of production has spiralled up, making production unviable. Considering the gravity of the situation, he urged the government to intervene and support the plantations before the things went out of control.

“The relative humidity levels in certain parts of Coonoor and Udhagamandalam has come down to 31 against a normal of 60-plus, which is impacting the tea output,” said N Lakshmanan Chettiar, a senior planter in the Nilgiris. There is a need to help prepare the industry by creating the necessary infrastructure and through long-term funding to deal with the extraordinary situation, he said.

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Prince Thomas George, chairman of the Association of Planters of Kerala (APK), said the cardamom tracts in Idukki have been severely impacted by the prevailing drought. There has been no rain for the past 115 days. Around 30 per cent of plants have perished to date and will need replanting. Water sources have completely dried up. If rains do not come in the next few days, the damage will increase manifold. Even in surviving plants, the panicles have dried up.

Unseen in coffee regions

It is feared that the cardamom crop next season will drop by around 50 per cent minimum. This drought rivals the big droughts of 1983, 1992 and 1998. The government should come out with a replanting package and subsidy for water augmentation measures, George said.

The extreme searing heat this year was unseen in the country’s key coffee growing regions of Karnataka and Kerala. As against a normal of 32-33°C, the temperatures were abnormally higher this year touching 35-35°C in the key coffee growing regions. Though some parts of Chikkamagaluru received pre-monsoon showers in mid-April, extreme heat conditions will impact the fruit setting, said Ajoy Thipaiah, chairman, UPASI coffee committee.

“While it is too early to quantify the crop damage, the impact is visible. The prime arabica growing areas of Kodagu such as Madapura, Suntikoppa among others have received very scanty or negligible rains. And the same situation extends to the coffee growing regions of Wayanad, Kalpaetta among others,” Thipaiah said

APK’s George said the robusta coffee in Wayanad has been badly affected with patchy rains creating sporadic flowering but in the absence of backing rains the setting will be greatly affected. Water sources have dried up. The heat wave and extremely high temperature is causing loss in setting. There will be a minimum of 25 per cent loss in crop during the next season, he said.

The extreme weather conditions also caused severe casualties to intercrops such as pepper, areca nuts, causing capital loss to the plantations.

Stressful period

Biju Panicker, Vice President (Rubber Business), Harrisons Malayalam, said the natural rubber sector is passing through a stressful period in the prevailing unprecedented extreme high temperature and low rainfall conditions. This will adversely affect the rubber in two ways. The newly replanted young trees are also going through this stressful period which will impact its growth. These trees are supposed to be brought into tapping at the end of six years which may get extended. This high temperature coupled with low rain is resulting in low moisture in the soil and therefore in the trees this can cause huge production drop. This can impact the production adversely in the short term.

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However, the production can pick up once we have a normal rainfall condition, Panicker added. Moreover, rubber tappers are also greatly affected by the rising temperatures. Early morning temperature at 5:30 am is reaching around 30°C and the midday temperatures touching 40 is making the tappers movement difficult. Saving grace is that the tappers are under the shade of trees while carrying out their work. However, those working in the open fields are the worst affected.

Kishore Shamji, Director of the Indian Pepper and Spice Trade Association (IPSTA), said drought conditions have very badly affected pepper vines in Wayanad and Idukki. Heat wave conditions have forced farmers to pluck early and the pepper is getting dried in just two days instead of 4-5 days in this hot climate. “It is too early to say on the impact on the next crop cycle”, he said.