RAM PATEL is rather upbeat these days. The reason: prices of jeera (cumin seed) hitting record Rs 21,000 per quintal levels at Gujarat’s Unjha market. For this farmer from Dudhva village in Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district, there’s no better time than now to sell the five quintals he still has from the crop harvested earlier in the year. Those five quintals are worth Rs 1 lakh or so at today’s rates — and whose value may fall if he were to hold back this produce any longer.
In a year marked by low realisations for most agricultural commodities — be it cotton, groundnut, potato or tobacco — and also seen to have cost rural votes for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent Gujarat assembly elections, jeera has been an exception. Its prices at Unjha — the APMC (agriculture produce market committee) mandi in Mehsana district, which sets the benchmark for this seed spice in other wholesale markets both within and outside Gujarat — crossed the Rs 20,000 per quintal barrier on November 24. By December 13, they had reached Rs 21,000 and have since hovered at those levels. Last year, at this time, jeera was being sold for Rs 18,000 per quintal, while ruling just over Rs 15,000 the year before.
The above spike in prices has led farmers in Gujarat to plant 3.48 lakh hectares (lh) under jeera in the current sowing season, which extends from November to early December. This area, which is subject to upward revision, is significantly more than the 2.79 lh of last year. All the major growing districts have recorded higher coverage: Patan (from 40,700 to 68,100 hectares), Banaskantha (from 64,900 to 67,800 hectares) and Ahmedabad (from 12,400 to 19,800 hectares) in north/central Gujarat; Porbandar (from 12,100 to 23,200 hectares), Rajkot (from 4,900 to 22,000 hectares) and Devbhumi Dwarka (from 4,800 to 20,400 hectares) in Saurashtra; and Kutch (from 23,200 to 29,600 hectares).
Only Surendranagar, the biggest producer, has registered a decline, from 93,300 to 80,000 hectares.
Ram Patel has sown jeera in seven out of his 10-bigha holding this time. Last year, he grew the crop only on three bigha, while dedicating the remaining seven bigha for mustard (six bigha make a hectare). Jeera is extremely sensitive to weather fluctuations, making its cultivation riskier relative to wheat, chana (chickpea) and dhaniya (coriander), which are the other major rabi season crops in Gujarat. Overcast skies or dew at the time of maturity — jeera is harvested from February to March — can sometimes even lead to complete crop loss.
“If the weather is favourable, I can harvest an average of two quintals per bigha. Last year, there was extreme winter and dew, which resulted in my entire three bigha yielding just five quintals,” notes Patel. Mustard, by contrast, is hardier. “But I cannot earn more than Rs 10,000 per bigha from mustard, whereas jeera can give twice or thrice that return. Small farmers like me have to, therefore, take the risk. If the current prices hold, the gamble should definitely pay off,” adds the 30-year-old, who has studied till Class XII.
What keeps Patel going — allowing him to hold back his five quintals of jeera harvested in February and play the market — is dairy farming. During the kharif season after the July monsoon rains, he grows only green fodder for his six buffaloes and four cows. This he follows with jeera and mustard in the winter and, then, bajra (pearl-millet) and jowar (sorghum) during spring-summer. Patel has even spent Rs 2.5 lakh to install a diesel engine and lay pipelines for drawing water from the Narmada dam project’s main canal, which is around half a km from his field. “The water is costly, but it is ideal for jeera. I also have a tube-well in my farm, but the water from it is salty,” he points out.
Patel plans to take his jeera crop, which would be harvested in February, to the APMC at Tharad. It is only 12 km from his village. The rates at Unjha are marginally higher, but the APMC there is 130 km away. The March 2018 jeera futures contract at the National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange is currently trading at around Rs 17,700 per quintal, which is the price that farmers delivering in Unjha can expect at the time of harvesting.
Suresh Gajera, a 28-bigha farmer in Aradoi village of Rajkot district’s Kotda Sangani taluka, has two open wells that are 60-feet and 90-feet deep, respectively, but carrying very little water now. His field has no access to any irrigation canal water either. That hasn’t stopped him, however, from deciding to use the limited water available from his wells to plant jeera on four bigha. Gajera normally grows only a single crop of cotton during kharif. The high prices this time is what encouraged him to go for jeera. “We do cultivate onion and garlic during winter, though it happens rarely because the water usually dries up around mid-October after Diwali. This year, it fortunately rained towards the monsoon’s fag end, enabling me to sow jeera and irrigate it four times. The crop is already at flowering stage and requires no further irrigation,” says Gajera.
Ramesh Solanki has sown jeera on seven out of the 18-bigha land at Kotda Sangani’s Soliya village that he farms as a sharecropper. The water from the 90-feet deep well in his field is enough to irrigate 10 bigha. “I planted jeera on seven and wheat on the remaining three bigha. I did this after consulting my landowner, who also felt it is worth growing the seed spice. So far, everything looks good and if prices also remain close to what they are now, it should give us a decent return,” observes Solanki.
Gaurang Patel, chairman of the Unjha APMC, attributes the current prices of jeera to low off-season arrivals. At roughly 600 quintals per day at his mandi, these aren’t even a fifth of the peak season arrivals. Also, last year’s crop wasn’t all that good, with the country’s official production at 4.85 lakh tonnes (lt), as against 5.03 lt in 2015-16. But with exports simultaneously surging by almost 31 per cent to 1.29 lt (valued at Rs 2,128.50 crore), the resultant supply-demand tightness has kept prices firm. And this is expected to continue at least till February, when the new crop starts arriving. About 60 per cent of India’s jeera is produced in Gujarat, with the rest mainly coming from Rajasthan.
Sitaram Patel, president of the Unjha market’s Vyapari Mandal or traders’ association, believes that the increase in prices over the last one year has been driven mainly by supply shortfalls in Syria and Turkey. “War and political instability in the two countries (which are estimated to produce 30,000-40,000 tonnes and 10,000 tonnes, respectively) have forced overseas buyers to source more from India. Our farmers have obviously benefited in the process,” he adds.
According to Ram Patel, the cultivation cost of jeera works out to Rs 9,000-10,000 per bigha. Taking an average yield of two quintals, even a Rs 15,000 per quintal price would translate into a return of Rs 20,000. That’s more than decent, compared to what his fellow farmers are getting today from cotton, groundnut, potato or tobacco.