The EU ban on import of mangoes from India is bringing down prices of Alphonso. Ghawali explains all that goes into the king of the fruit.
The road to Ratnagiri, south-western Maharashtra, is flanked by trees laden with fresh mangoes. This is the land of the Alphonso, arguably the ‘king’ of mangoes, and 67-year-old Tukaram Ghawali owns some 1,000 trees spread over 30 acres across different orchards in Ratnagiri.
One such orchard, spread over four acres, has around 200 trees with mangoes ripe enough to be sold in the market. It’s harvest season and the orchard is littered with several boxes and baskets. There are men too, climbing up the trees with baskets around their necks, plucking the mangoes. There is another group of men shifting the fruits from the baskets to colourful plastic crates. In between all this chaos, Ghawali brings order with his instructions.
In the shadow of the closely planted mango trees — their thick canopies blotting out the harsh sun — the men pluck some 10,000 mangoes and pack them into 100 crates in five hours. Around 2 pm, the mangoes are loaded on to a tempo to be taken to Ghawali’s farmhouse nearly a kilometre away.
Ghawali is already there, to supervise the packing of the freshly plucked fruit. Often he gets down on the floor himself to work with the labourers. Under a tin shed, he, along with sons, 41-year-old Milind and 35-year-old Rajnish, sorts out the mangoes and packs them into wooden boxes. Long years of experience behind him, Ghawali doesn’t take long to determine whether a mango should be sold to the agent or discarded. The answer lies in the skin of the mango, he tells you. “If the skin is squashed anywhere on the fruit, it means it wasn’t plucked but fell to the ground. Such a mango could be infected and is thus discarded. And if there are black spots, it means it was over-exposed to the heat, and would thus ripen before it reaches the market. This kind too is rejected,” he says.
Ghawali has been working in mango orchards since he was 12 years old. During summer breaks, he would help his father, a daily-wage labourer, at a mango farm in order to supplement the family income and, in the process, learnt all about the fruit. Holding a rather large Alphonso, he says, “This should weigh between 300 and 320 grams.” When Milind places the mango on the weighing machine, it displays 320 grams. Showing two mangoes of different sizes, he explains, “While three dozen small mangoes can fit in one box, the quantity varies when the mangoes are medium-size and large-size.”
Even packing, he says, requires skill. Taking a wooden box, Ghawali places a newspaper at the bottom, then a layer of dry grass, followed by the mangoes. Once all the mangoes are placed, he again spreads out a sheet of newspaper in the box, dry grass on top of it and then another set of mangoes. “Wrong packaging can rot the mangoes,” explains Ghawali, adding that after the packing is done, the box is sealed and marked with the exact date when it should be opened. “The mangoes we pack ripen in eight days,” he says.
The packed boxes are picked up by their agent’s transporter at night, and the agent further supplies the mangoes to retailers in Gujarat. “During the entire mango season, we sell about 5,000 boxes in all,” says Ghawali. The discarded mangoes are sold at Rs 25 a kg in the local market.
This year, Ghawali confirms, farmers like him are scared of a fall in revenue due to the European Union ban on the import of Indian mangoes and vegetables. The EU last week banned the imports from May 1 to December 2015 after authorities allegedly found consignments infested with fruit flies.
Even though Ghawali is not an exporter, he is worried about the ban’s impact on local prices. “Since the Indian market now also has mangoes which were exported till last year, the prices have dropped drastically. We used to get anything between Rs 2,000 and
Rs 2,500 for each box till last year. Now we sell the same for Rs 1,700,” he says.
The earnings, he says, barely cover expenses incurred on pesticides, dry grass, packing boxes and labour charges. Apart from 17 farm labourers, Ghawali also has 15 watchmen who guard farms around the year.
The EU ban came after consignments were allegedly found to be infested with fruit flies. But Ghawali is not worried about the Alphonso’s sales taking a hit. “We fumigate the space where we finally pack the mangoes before sending them out to the market, so why should I worry about infestation?” says Ghawali.
Though he is busiest from March to May, the harvest season, mango farming demands work through the year, Ghawali explains. In June and July, fertilisers are sprinkled on trees, in August, they are trimmed, and from November to January, they flower and are treated with pesticides. “While the mangoes that grow in November are ready for plucking by March, the ones that come in December and January are plucked in April and May respectively. The older the tree, the larger is its produce,” says Ghawali.
Even though Ratnagiri’s temperature is conducive to Alphonso cultivation, Ghawali says if the mercury crosses 38 degree Celsius, it harms the quality of the mangoes as they start turning black. Ghawali though has his ground well covered. While Alphonso trees bear fruits only every alternate year, his revenues alternate between his 1,000 trees.