Despite growing opportunities and a rise in demand, flower cultivation is something Punjab farmers steer clear of. Few gather the courage to cultivate flowers because they are unconvinced by the prospects of good prices and note that the export demand is low. Only wealthy farmers who can afford it are going for flower cultivation.
What farmers consider even more risky is the cultivation of high-quality flower seeds which are in great demand in Europe and the US. Only 1,500 acres in Punjab is under flower seeds cultivation and the government does not provide any incentives or subsidies on their production and export.
Among the exceptions is Avtar Singh Dhindsa, who since 1986 has been exporting high-quality flower and vegetable seeds to various countries. Currently president of Asian and Pacific Seeds Association with its headquarters in Bangkok, and which has 48 countries as its members, he is the first Sikh to hold the position.
After winning an MSc in landscaping and floriculture from Punjab Agricultural University in 1979, the journey has been a bumpy ride for Dhindsa, who jumped from job to job in landscaping before taking up seeds production.
“At that time there was very little awareness of landscaping among the public,” he told The Indian Express. “I tried my best to inculcate the idea of beautification of premises with plants and flowers. Because of a poor response to my activities from the public, I diversified to managerial assignment with Hero Fibres Ltd. After one year I switched to landscaping consultancy and later joined as landscape officer in Ludhiana Improvement Trust.”
The struggle continued until he visited the US in 1986 to explore opportunities in flower seed production, at that time an unexplored area in India. “I visited the US and Europe to get some business in the field of my specialisation,” he said. “I got a good response from a few well-known seed companies. Initial success with production of some varieties of flower seeds gave me confidence,”
Dhindsa started with a 3.5-acre farm of flower seeds and now owns 1,200 acres farmlands in various parts of the country. He exports seeds not only of flowers but also of various vegetables to countries such as Belgium, Netherlands, the US and Japan.
Crediting his professor, Dr A P S Gill of PAU, with his success, Dhindsa says, “We also have farms in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Chandigarh and Delhi.”
His farms employ small farmers and also train them in production of flower seeds. The focus is on employing rural women, he says. “In our farms, rural women are given a sustained year-round opportunity to work in the flower seed collection and processing. It requires about six to 15 women workers per acre for the flower seed production.”
At present, 2,000 rural laborers, 80 per cent of them women, are employed on 750 acres of farms Dhindsa runs in Punjab.
He deals in more than 600 varieties of flower seeds and 25 varieties of vegetable seeds. The high-quality seeds exported include those of flowers such as gaillardia, bellis, petunia, viola and helichrysum, and of vegetable such as cauliflower, capsicum, squash and gourds.
Dhindsa says it is a highly labour-intensive job that involves various procedures and inspection.
“The overall market of flower seeds in world is of approximately $50 million out of which India accounts for hardly $2 to 3 million,” he said. “No doubt the procedure is tough: hiring labour for plucking high quality seeds, drying them and then packaging the best quality ones. But the Indian government has failed to help farmers in any way. Not more than 600 farmers are cultivating flower seeds in India. Even China is promoting flower seed farming because it leads to good profits. We face multiple problems with customs officials while exporting the seed.”