In June 2018, Vishnu Misal spent nearly Rs 5 lakh on steel frames, iron wires, bamboo poles, drip irrigation lines and other infrastructure, plus planting material, for developing a vineyard on 1.5 acres of his total 12-acre holding in Chinake village of Solapur district’s Sangola taluka. Apart from this “one-time investment”, he incurred over Rs 2 lakh of “input costs” — on labour, fungicides, insecticides, fertilisers, micronutrients, etc — for his first crop of grapes that would have been harvested by mid-January 2020.
But all this money — at least the variable expenses — has gone down the drain. For Misal, the fledgling vineyard was an insurance against the falling incomes from his seven acres of dalimb (pomegranate) plantation. Early this month, the entire grape canopy in the 1.5-acre vineyard — the berries had just about formed — succumbed to a severe downy mildew fungal disease attack resulting from heavy unseasonal rains.
Worse, the rains, which kept coming from around October 20 up to November 4 or so, destroyed his pomegranate crop as well. “80% of my dalimb (which was to be harvested by end-November/early-December) has been hit by bacterial blight disease, caused by the same showers. I had hoped to harvest about 42 tonnes from the seven acres, but now don’t expect to sell more than six tonnes. The dark oily spots on the hard skin will make the fruits unmarketable,” remarks Misal, an agricultural science graduate who has left 3.5 acres of his balance landholding fallow. Last year, too, a freak localised hailstorm in early-November had led to the 35-year-old’s 40 tonnes of harvested fruits turning black. “I had to sell for as low as Rs 2/kg. The alternative was to pay labourers to clear my orchard of the damaged fruits,” he adds.
Solapur, which is a bridge between the irrigated sugarcane-growing bowl of southwestern Maharashtra and the drought-prone Marathwada region, has features of both. With an average annual rainfall of 642 mm, below the 1,188 mm of all-India and 1,278 mm for Maharashtra, the district is arid. Yet, it has 39 operational sugar mills, the highest for any district in India. Farmers grow cane, thanks to water from the Ujani reservoir on the Bhima River in Madha taluka and 8 smaller dams in the district. Besides, they cultivate horticultural crops such as pomegranate, sitaphal (custard apple), grapes, guava and chikoo, maintaining their orchards by harvesting groundwater or storing rainwater in farm ponds.
“We started with grapes in the mid-sixties. Repeated droughts made us switch to pomegranate. The well-drained sandy loam soils and the long, hot and dry summer here was well suited for dalimb,” explains Prabhakar Chandane, president of the Pomegranate Growers’ Association of India, tracing the spread of this fruit-bearing deciduous shrub from the early 1970s.
Maharashtra accounts for 1.3 lakh hectares out of the country’s 1.8 lakh hectares area under pomegranate. Solapur alone has some 30,000 hectares of dalimb orchards, half of it in Sangola. Farmers prepare their trees for flowering in June-July, with fruit-setting after August and the matured fruits being harvested post November. Chandane, who grows pomegranate on 35 acres in Ekhatpur village of Sangola, estimates the average cost of maintenance for an acre at Rs 1-1.5 lakh and yields at 6-12 tones.
Roughly 30% of Solapur’s pomegranates, like Nashik’s grapes, are for the export market. The district also contributes to 85-90% of India’s shipments of the fruit, which amounted to 69,537 tonnes, valued at Rs 689.88 crore, in 2018-19. Solapur’s dalimb growers aim to export the maximum part of their produce, which mainly goes to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Netherlands and Bangladesh. The export season extends from early-December till mid-March. Export thrust, improved road connectivity enabling sales both within the country and overseas, and the ‘Bhagwa’ high-yielding good-quality variety developed by the Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth in 2003-04 made pomegranate a remunerative crop from the Nineties to the Noughties.
However, frequent droughts have turned the story upside down in the current decade. Solapur district has recorded below-normal rainfall in every year since 2010, with 2015 and 2018 being the worst. This year, it hardly rained in the main monsoon season (June-September), but poured after the third week of October when least required. “The crop doesn’t require much water, but the severe moisture stress from continuous monsoon failures has disrupted the growing cycle and made the orchards susceptible to pathogens,” points out Chandane.
Subhash Patil harvested 25 tonnes of dalimb on his 2.5 acres land at Chinake last year. Out of that, he sold 10 tonnes for exports at Rs 70/kg and the rest for the domestic market, which realised Rs 40/kg. On the whole, he grossed roughly Rs 13 lakh and netted Rs 9 lakh after costs. This year, though, Patil anticipates a 15% production drop due to bacterial blight. “Both bacterial blight and wilt (caused by a fungus Ceratocystis fimbriata) have been on the rise in the last five years, affecting fruit quality and price realisations too,” claims this farmer, who has been cultivating pomegranate since 2000.
Chandane feels replacing ‘Bhagwa’ is the need of the hour. While this variety has several attractive features — saffron-coloured thick skin, big fruit size, bold and sweet arils, and good yield — years of drought have taken their toll and made the plants increasingly susceptible to fungal pathogens. “We want a new, more disease-resistant Bhagwa and processing plants that can turn even damaged fruits into juice,” he sums up.