Tangy dragon fruit tickles the taste buds of Maharashtra farmersWritten By Hiren Kumar Bose | Published on Updated: Nov 16, 2022, 13:35 IST | 1668585940292Rain-deficient districts increasingly adopt the exotic variety, which gives better yield for a longer duration than custard apple or pomegranateSolapur, Maharashtra: Rajendra Deshmukh (62) set his eyes on a dragon fruit sapling when a friend gifted one worth Rs 250 in 2012, in exchange for a bunch of freshly harvested dates. Hailing from Barshi village in Solapur, Deshmukh collected two stumps of the exotic variety again during a visit to Vietnam in 2018.
Over the years, his dragon fruit plant collection multiplied, making him the proud owner of a farm spread over six acres in a rain shadow area with an average annual rainfall of 510 mm. He also runs a highly profitable nursery.
Traverse the rain-deficient districts of Maharashtra, and you will come across farmlands with rows and rows of erect poles thick with ornamental climbing vines adorned with green-scaled and pink-skinned fruits.
“Dragon fruit is cultivated in around 1,500 to 2,000 acres in Maharashtra. Its popularity is increasing in the semi-arid areas of Western Maharashtra, including Solapur, Sangli, Pune, Nashik and Kolhapur. Things are no different in Marathwada’s Latur, Beed, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Hingol and Osmanabad and most of Vidarbha, besides the dry land areas in the Konkan,” informs Dr Madhukar Potdar, who earlier worked with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and is the president of the newly-formed Maharashtra Dragon Fruit Association.
The distinctive variety with a nutty taste was given a new name wherever it was adopted. For instance, the Chinese call it long guo, the Malayans buah naga, and the Indonesians buah mata naga.
The colonial masters in the early 19th century introduced the fruit to Vietnam, where it is called thanh long. Incidentally, Vietnam is the world’s leading exporter of the fruit. In India, Gujarat pioneered its cultivation in the 1990s and named it kamalam.
A cost-effective crop
“Farmers in semi-arid zones have realised that dragon fruit is the fastest and easiest way to double their income. Though the initial input cost to set up an orchard is high, the investment can be recovered within three years,” says Dr G Karunkaran, Principal Scientist, ICAR-IIHR, Bengaluru.
Elaborating on its virtues, Dr Karunakaran, the lead author of a paper titled ‘Dragon fruit country report from India’, says, “Perennial fruits like custard apple or pomegranate take three to five years to give yield. However, dragon fruit is ready in the very first year. Moreover, the harvest period is for six months. The grower thus gets income for a longer duration, unlike cereals, pulses or vegetables.”
It takes around Rs 5 lakh to initially prepare an acre of land for dragon fruit cultivation. A major chunk of this amount goes towards setting up concrete columns to support the climbing vines, besides a round/circular frame made of concrete or metal, which is seated on the top to help the vines move downwards facilitating fruiting.
Around 2,000 vines can be planted on an acre of land. As each vine gives two to five fruits, a farmer gets four to five tonne in the first year. It touches 12 to 15 tonne by the third year. The fruit fetches Rs 80 to 150 per kg. “While Rs 1,000 is needed for maintenance of a grape or pomegranate plant, it is just Rs 50 for dragon fruit,” explains Dr Karunakaran.
No doubt, it is a boon to farmers living in arid and semi-arid zones, and even those with non-productive and less fertile land. “Dragon fruit is highly drought-tolerant and climate-smart, with a high water use efficiency rate. It grows with 10 to 20% water when compared with rice and sugarcane,” elaborates Dr Potdar.
According to him, Gujarat grows the fruit on 2,500 acres. In Maharashtra, its acreage is between 1,500 and 2,000 acres. “While the farms in Gujarat are big, some of them covering 100-plus acres, the largest in Maharashtra is on a 30-acre plot,” he informs.
Pioneers in the field
If there is one individual who has done the most to popularise dragon fruit among farmers, it is Shambhaji Kodag (47) of Sangli’s Avandi village. After planting the variety on two acres in 2011-2012, he realised there were hardly any takers for it.
Kodag then printed 25,000 copies of a pamphlet extolling the virtues of dragon fruit farming and elaborating on its wellness quotient. “Whenever I attended a farmers’ meet or visited a doctor’s clinic, I distributed my pamphlets there,” he says. “A free seminar that I organised brought in 1,000-odd farmers. And when a local daily wrote about my novel crop, some 10,000 farmers turned up at my farm.”
In order to attract the attention of the State’s agriculture department, he shot off a representation signed by vice-chancellors of agricultural universities and 10,000-odd farmers, which paved the way for the introduction of government subsidy to prospective dragon fruit farmers last year.
A Class 9 dropout, Anil Salunkhe of Bamni in Solapur took to the crop in 2011, at the age of 26. “My elder brother Sunil is a wrestler. He visited China in 2009 and came across this fruit in the market. When he told me about it, I decided to get some stumps,” reminisces Salunkhe, whose 26-acre farm gave 200 tonne of the fruit last year. He also runs a nursery that sells around 10 lakh saplings a year.
Of the several marginal farmers, Nilesh Parjare (31), an engineering graduate hailing from Khalapuri village in Beed, stands apart. In 2019, he abandoned cotton, tur dal and urad dal crops to take the bold step of converting the family’s two-and-a-half acre plot into an entirely drip-irrigated dragon fruit farm. “Wherever I am likely to get a good price, I go there — be it Pune, located 135 km from my village, or Aurangabad, at a distance of 250 km. Last year, I harvested seven tonne and made a lot of money,” he beams.
Vijaya Ghule (55) of Kelsangvi village in Beed saw an opportunity in the vacant space of 12 ft left between the rows of dragon fruit vines totalling 800. She planted 240 apple, 80 date palm and 300 guava trees in that space — all prospering well now.
Latur, known for its export quality grapes, is witnessing a major shift. Mohegaon-based Rajkumar Dynaoba Dadge (57), who was conferred Maharashtra’s Udyan Pandit Award in 2004 and the Best Regional Exporters Award in 2007 for grapes by the Ministry of Industry, now grows residue-free dragon fruit, a novel concept, in his two-and-a-half acre plot.
“Latur has around 75 hectares devoted to the fruit and the same is growing by 100 acres each year,” says Dadge, who has taken the lead to form a farmer-producer company with 55 growers.
A super fruit
Thanks to its nutritional qualities, this super fruit has become popular among the health-conscious, with its consumption increasing after the pandemic. "In the last couple of years, Indians have been consuming more fruits and nuts, which has benefited farmers," says Dr Karunakaran.
The Union Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare categorises dragon fruit as a foreign fruit, along with kiwi and passion fruit. To encourage their cultivation, it has so far provided financial assistance to the tune of Rs 164.38 crore to Maharashtra.
Farmers here believe the State government needs to do more and point to the disparity: neighbouring Gujarat offers financial assistance up to Rs 4.5 lakh per hectare, while Maharashtra offers a measly Rs 1.60 lakh.
As price drop due to a supply glut is highly likely in near future, Dr Karunkaran suggests that farmers should become entrepreneurs to make value-added products. "Making ready-to-serve products — be it jam, squash, freeze-dried cube, spray-dried powder or jelly — available throughout the year will create new markets and ensure continuous demand for the fruit," he adds.
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
The cover image is of dragon fruit vines, planted in rows in rural Maharashtra, clicked by Hiren Bose.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)