Bananas are generally grown in tropical coastal regions with high annual precipitation of 2,000 millimeters and more.
That explains why the global banana majors — Chiquita (the erstwhile United Fruit Company), Dole (formerly Standard Fruit Company), Del Monte, Noboa, Sumifru and Tadeco — produce all their fruit from large company-controlled plantations in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia or Philippines.
It also accounts for some of the Central American countries becoming ‘banana republics’, a pejorative term referring to the all-pervasive influence that United Fruit and Standard Fruit wielded over their economies, extending to politics and effecting regime changes.
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Jalgaon is an exception to the rule — of a district located over 300 km from the west coast and on the northern edge of the Deccan plateau — receiving an average yearly rainfall of only 750 mm, and still the world’s seventh largest banana producer if it were a country. And its bananas are wholly produced by independent growers.
Jalgaon’s emergence as a ‘new’ banana republic with none of its negative connotations owes primarily to technology and entrepreneurial farmers, especially from the Gurjar and Leva Patil communities.
While the district was for long known to cultivate bananas — thanks to its strategic location and the Bhusaval railway station enabling access to the North Indian market — the real breakthrough, however, happened with the spread of drip irrigation that made efficient use of scarce water possible.
“Under normal flood irrigation, a 15-horsepower motor pump could at best water 10,000 plants even with 24-hour electricity supply. Through drip irrigation, you can cover 15,000 plants using the same 15-hp motor even with 8-hour power. The effective water savings is 60-70 per cent,” says Premanand Hari Mahajan, who farms bananas in 50 out of his 80-acre holding in Tandalwadi village of Jalgaon’s Raver taluka.
The second innovation was high-density planting — at 1,200-1,500 plants per acre, as against the 800-1,000 plants norm in coastal regions. Jalgaon’s major disadvantage was its dry weather and lack of humidity required by bananas.
This was overcome by close planting. The dense canopy from it created the right humid microclimate inside the farm, by arresting moisture evaporation as well as blocking hot air from outside. Simultaneously, drip irrigation ensured that the plant roots got enough water.
Hot and dry weather now turned into an advantage, as the crop was less susceptible to sigatoka leaf spot and fusarium wilt fungal diseases. “These have wreaked havoc across plantations in Central America and Philippines, with high humidity and round-the-year rainfall actually conducive to their spread. It has forced aerial spraying of fungicides, accounting for up to 40 per cent of total production costs,” notes KB Patil, vice president (Tissue Culture & Agricultural Services) at Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd (JISL), which introduced drip irrigation to India
Jalgaon’s entire 48,000-hectare (1,19,000 acres) banana area is currently under drip irrigation. “That is yet another reason for less of disease incidence. With flood irrigation, the likelihood of soil-borne pathogens migrating from plant to plant and field to field goes up,” he claims.
The third significant intervention, besides drip irrigation and high-density planting, came via tissue culture. In normal banana cultivation, the ‘suckers’ or lateral baby shoots developing from the stem (rhizome) of the mother plant — which dies after producing bananas — are what the farmers uproot and transplant as ‘seed’ for their
In tissue culture, a mere 1-1.5 mm part from a disease-free sucker is taken, inoculated and placed in an artificial growth medium (containing minerals, vitamins, amino acids, sugar and hormones) for enlargement to 10-15 mm over roughly 12 weeks.
The enlarged tissue is then cut into pieces and each of these transferred to separate media for multiplication and production of shoots, followed by root initiation. The micro-propagated rooted plantlets are further sent for primary and secondary hardening, before being ready for field planting.
The main advantage with tissue-cultured banana plants, apart from being based on disease-free and genetically pure material, is that the individual plants are of uniform age. This is not so with suckers, where each plant may have a 12-month lifecycle, but there’s no guarantee all would mature and yield fruit at the same time. Non-uniform growth also affects yields, as the smaller plants are denied light by the larger surrounding ones.
“Under flood irrigation and sucker planting, it takes 18 months for an entire acre to be harvest-ready and yields are only 15-16 kg per plant. Even with 1,300 harvestable plants per acre, banana yields cannot cross 21 tonnes. But with drip irrigation and tissue culture, I can harvest an acre within 12 months and yields are easily 30 kg per plant or 39 tonnes/acre,” explains Mahajan, who has himself harvested a world record of 53 tonnes an acre (130 tonnes/hectare).
The pioneer here again was JISL, which, in 1994, imported a few thousand primary hardened plants from Rahan Meristem, an Israeli biotechnology company.
These included that of a banana variety called Grand Nain, originally developed in Honduras and commercialised by Chiquita. After three years of field trials, JISL launched a micro-propagation programme and taking tissue culture banana cultivation to farmers’ fields.
In 2014-15, JISL sold six crore tissue-cultured Grand Nain banana plants — more than any other company in the world — across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Our target this year is 7.5 crore plants and 30 crore over the next five years,” states Patil.
Farmers like Mahajan grow tissue-cultured Grand Nain banana using drip irrigation and fertigation, i.e. applying fertilisers in liquid form along with water that drips slowly to the roots of the plants through a network of valves, mainline pipes, sub-mains, polytubes/laterals and emitters.
“My total cultivation cost comes to Rs 1,10,000-1,15,000 per acre. Even at 39 tonnes/acre and an average Rs 500/quintal realisation, there is enough profit to be made,” adds Mahajan.
Since the advent of drip irrigation in 1989, Jalgaon’s banana production has risen almost three-fold from 1.2 million tonnes to 3.4 million tonnes. Not only is the district today the world’s seven largest producing ‘country’, but its average yields at 70 tonnes per hectare are way above global levels (see chart). That makes for a different banana republic.
Why Jalgaon’s banana growers are looking north — at border with Pakistan
In a village in Jalgaon, on the northern edge of the Deccan plateau and more than 300 km from the west coast, Premanand Hari Mahajan has been tracking Indo-Pak developments, yearning for “achche sambandh” (good relations) and an open border for trade.
He has reasons for that. At 53 tonnes per acre, this farmer with 80 acres in Tandalwadi in Raver taluka has recorded the highest banana yields in the world.
His home district Jalgaon produces around 3.4 million tonnes of bananas, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of Maharashtra’s and 11-12 per cent of India’s annual output.
“We hardly consume bananas. Over 80 per cent of our production goes to north India and across the border. Free trade with Pakistan obviously helps us,” Mahajan said.
He has received the Sheti Nishtha and the Udyan Ratan awards conferred by Maharashtra government on progressive farmers.
Kishor Patil of Sarvadnya Kela Agencies, a trader-cum-box packer based in Raver, estimates that total banana supplies to Pakistan from Jalgaon, via Wagah near Amritsar and Uri/Poonch in J&K, topped 700 trucks of 16-17 tonnes each in 2013-14.
“In 2014-15, it fell to 300 trucks because of frequent suspension of trade following heroin seizures from trucks coming from the other side. This year, too, there has been very little trade,” Patil said.
Much of the Pakistani demand for bananas is in the holy month of Ramzan. “There isn’t any fruit that is cheaper yet nutritious for people to consume while breaking their roza in the evening,” he said.
Pakistan’s share in Jalgaon’s overall banana supplies is, however, small. The three talukas of Raver, Yawal and Bhusawal alone despatch 300-350 trucks per day to north India during the peak season from May to August. These drop to an average 100 trucks daily in September-February before reducing to a trickle in the following two months, when the northern demand is largely met by bananas from Pulivendula and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh.
“The Pakistan market, on the whole, may be small. Since their buying happens during our main harvesting period, touching 30 trucks some days, it impacts price sentiment. Hamare liye border khula, toh naseeb khula (for us, open borders bring luck),” said Atul Patil, a 60-acre grower from Kumbharkheda in Raver taluka. He also aggregates and loads produce of other farmers for supply to traders in Jalgaon dealing directly with ‘parties’ in Delhi’s Azadpur and other northern mandis.
Bananas are a highly price-volatile crop. “This year, rates were Rs 400-450 per quintal at the start of May, rising to Rs 850-900 by the month-end, before falling again to Rs 600-800 in June and to Rs 500-600 now. In 2013-14, I even sold at Rs 1,000-1,100 per quintal,” Mahajan said.
About 70 per cent of India’s banana production of 29-30 million tonnes come from five states — Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. While the southern, western and even eastern region is fed by the other states, farmers in Khandesh — it includes Jalgaon, Dhule and Nandurbar — are mainly reliant on the north Indian market.
Jalgaon receives an average yearly rainfall of only 750 mm and, were it a country, would have ranked the seventh largest banana producer. Its emergence owes primarily to technology and entrepreneurial farmers, especially from the Gurjar and Leva Patil communities.
While the district was for long known to cultivate bananas — thanks to its strategic location and the Bhusawal railway station enabling access to the north Indian market — the real breakthrough, however, happened with the spread of drip irrigation that made efficient use of scarce water possible.
“Under normal flood irrigation, a 15-horsepower motor pump could at best water 10,000 plants even with 24-hour electricity supply. Through drip irrigation, you can cover 15,000 plants using the same 15-hp motor even with 8-hour power. The effective water savings is 60-70 per cent,” Mahajan said.
The second innovation was high-density planting — 1,200-1,500 plants per acre, as against the 800-1,000 plants norm in coastal regions. The dense canopy created the right humid microclimate inside farms.