Vazhakulam’s Pineapple Tragedy
The pineapple farmers of Kerala have reported losses running into crores. Unable to see the fruits rot, many farmers left open their plantations for locals to take home for free as much as they could.
Known to produce four lakh tonnes of GI-tagged pineapple spread over 40,000 acres, all that remains in Vazhakkulam cluster in Ernakulam district of Kerala are stories of pineapple farmers gone bankrupt during the lockdown. But they fear the worst is yet to come.
With inter-state borders closed thereby cutting off access to the north-Indian states, the predominant market for pineapple, farmers are hopeless of a recovery.
The exodus of the migrant labourers has left them further disheartened and they say their future hangs in the balance. Something has to be done and done now.
The Lede spoke to stakeholders to understand their concerns.
Why Pineapple Farming Is Complex
“The average pineapple planter is not your average farmer,” says Baby John, President of the Pineapple Growers Association based in Vazhakulam, which is the centre of all pineapple cultivation in Kerala.
“Pineapple is mostly grown by farmers on leased lands,” says Baby John. “While there are farmers growing pineapple on owned landholdings as small as an acre and less, to grow the crop feasibly, the landholdings have to be much larger. This is why you see planters having as much as 100 to 400 acres under cultivation.”
In a land starved state such as Kerala, these acreages are huge.
“Pineapple is a crop which requires high investment and attracts high returns,” says 47-year-old Binu Skaria, former president of Marady Panchayat near Vazhakkulam and presently a ward member of the panchayat. He himself has been a pineapple farmer for more than 25 years.
“Those growing it mostly belong to a different category of farmers,” he says. “Pineapple is a crop in which for one to make profit, more and more areas have to be brought under cultivation every passing year. This helps reduce the labour costs as well as allows one to use the saplings produced from each crop. I didn’t do that and was only starting to focus more on farming when this happened.”
Binu has his regrets intensified given the acute losses he has suffered this year.
“When lockdown hit us, we didn’t know what to do. We were in the middle of harvesting and all of a sudden it was impossible to parcel labour to plantations or for trucks to lift loads. Irrespective of how one was financing oneself, all pineapple farmers have had their backs broken badly. I don’t know how I am going to recover from this,” he says.
Binu has under him a little more than 50 acres of pineapple, a figure he says is considerably smaller than others who started off into pineapple cultivation with him. He says he squandered away his youth trying to serve society, an opportunity lost, which Binu now regrets.Jiji Thomas a large farmer who has more than 200 acres of land growing pineapple this year has other worries. Given Kerala’s land ceiling of 10 acres, Jiji has leased out land from multiple land owners on 40 month long land leases.
“Each land owner has their own demands,” says Jiji Thomas. “Some lands costs more than others,” he says.
“On an average the lease costs anywhere from Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000 per acre. We usually get land leased from rubber plantation owners who are nearing replantation and take leases agreeing to clear the land, plant rubber sapling and return the land in 3 to 4 years.”
Jiji Thomas a large farmer who has more than 200 acres of land growing pineapple this year has other worries. Given Kerala’s land ceiling of 10 acres, Jiji has leased out land from multiple land owners on 40 month long land leases.
“Each land owner has their own demands,” says Jiji Thomas. “Some lands costs more than others,” he says.
“On an average the lease costs anywhere from Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000 per acre. We usually get land leased from rubber plantation owners who are nearing re-plantation and take leases agreeing to clear the land, plant rubber sapling and return the land in 3 to 4 years.”
Given the large acreage under Jiji, the yearly lease amount itself runs into crores, making Jiji’s farming activities industrial in its scale as also the losses.
“When the lockdown was announced with no provision for us to harvest standing crops, we stood to lose heavily,” says Jiji about the shock pineapple growers across the region suffered in the wake of the lockdown announcement.
“The police were stopping vehicular movement and we weren’t allowed to transport our labourers to the plantations. For the first week we had to let go of our crops and take the losses as is,” he says.
“In the first week, we told locals to take whatever they want free of cost. It will prevent rotting at least. Later, government included pineapple in essential services list, which made it possible for us to harvest.” But permission to harvest standing crops was not enough.
“The summer holidays and the festival season is the main crop of the year for pineapple,” says Baby John of the Pineapple Growers Association, underlining the gravity of the losses. “For the last two and half to three months, marketing of our produce has not been possible,” says John citing the root cause of all their troubles.
“Farmers are getting only one-fourth of the normal price which is fetched at this time of the year,” he says. “It is not even enough to cover half of the production costs. I got prices ranging from Rs 8 per kg to Rs 14 which I am being offered today,” says Binu Skaria.
“It is not enough,” says Jiji Thomas about the prices he got. “We have taken lands on lease expecting an average selling price of around Rs 30 per kg. How are we to respect the lease agreements? How are we to pay them?” he asks.
High Production Costs: Lease Rent
“The lease rent is the primary and biggest component of pineapple production cost,” says Jiji Thomas. “We pay as much as Rs 80,000 per acre for a year,” he says.
Siby George a large cultivator who has under him close to 300 acres puts things into perspective.
“The lease amounts itself runs into crores. How we manage is by taking ODs (overdrafts) from banks. Almost all farmers who cultivate pineapple have ODs issued from banks which have to be paid back on time for them to be able to support the next crop. In my case, just before the lockdown started, I had cut my crops which had an investment worth Rs 1.35 crore. Had the same crop been cut now, I would at the most get Rs 35 lakh.”
“A farmer can never catch up with that magnitude of loss. I would have lost my house and all other belongings straightaway. All farmers who had planted aiming for the summer vacations and Eid have suffered this nightmare. Many pineapple cultivators are in that situation right now. They have loans to be paid, ODs to be replenished and debts to be serviced. In the present scenario everyone I see is badly broken,” says Siby.
Siby has a shop in Vazhakkulam and is a commission agent, a term referring to the middlemen who take produce from farmers and sell them to other commission agents in demand side states who in turn sell them to retailers and wholesalers.
“I started this undertaking in January of this year,” says Siby. “The reason I started it was because of difficulties I faced in marketing my own produce. But if you ask me, I have not faced difficulties as much as a trader as I have as a farmer.
As a trader, whether the produce is being sold for Rs 10 per kg or Rs 50 per kg, I get to take my 50 paisa commission regardless. The only difficulty is in not being able to sell enough or the losses suffered because of inability to harvest on time which again leads to losses. But other than that, a trader is immune to an extent.
Other than that I have lost a few truck loads which got stuck with the markets closing overnight in Hyderabad and Mumbai. But that is not the case with a farmer who has put all he has and more in the hopes of making good returns. The risks are exponentially higher.
It is a painful sight to see farmers having to sell their produce at rates of Rs 6 and Rs 8 or for that matter the present rates of Rs 14 per kg. The production cost itself comes to Rs 28 to Rs 30 per kg.
In addition to this, now the labour have all returned home. When or whether they will come back is an uncertainty as of now. It will further affect our ability to recover,” says Siby.
Double Whammy: Labour Lost
“While there were around 20,000 mirgant labourers working in plantation farms in and around Vazhakulam earlier, today only about 3000 are left,” says Baby John. “This is a huge strain for the farmers.”
“Pineapple is a weather dependent crop and requires certain activities to be undertaken with each phase of passing seasons,” says Jiji Thomas. “Right now it is starting to rain and it is time for us to clear the overgrowth and undergrowth and give manure and fertiliser to revitalise the plant for the next crop. But we don’t have enough labour to do that anymore. I had 60 labourers working for me throughout the year. But now I am left with 23. And even amongst those left, most are waiting for trains to return back home in June,” explains Jiji.
“You cannot blame them,” says Binu Skaria. “I have 13 labourers working for me and none of them have left as of now. I have been paying them through these times as well. But they are all home-sick. Their families are calling them back home in these uncertain times. But what will happen to pineapple farming in their absence is a big concern for us,” says Binu.
“It is simply not possible for farmers to hire local labour for the kind of work that goes on in a pineapple farm,” says Siby George.
“The higher levels of education has dried up manual labourers within Kerala. We no longer have any locals who can undertake such physical work,” concurs Binu.
“Pineapple farming has become totally dependent on migrant labour in every stage right from land clearing to planting, harvesting loading, unloading and supervising,” says Jiji Thomas. “With the migrant labourers suddenly going out of reach, we don’t know whether we will be able to undertake further activities needed to prepare the plants for the next crop even.”
An acre of land once prepared can be planted with anywhere from 8000 to 10,000 saplings depending on the terrain and slopes. Each plant gives one fruit weighing between 700 grams and 1.2 kilograms.
Before planting, the land is prepared by adding chicken manure brought in from poultry farms in Tamil Nadu. This then is followed by fertilisation every 30 days as well as application of pesticides and insecticides. Once harvested, the crop is cleared of undergrowth and fertilisers applied.
Meanwhile, newer saplings are taken from the harvested plants and planted in newly prepared lands.
At the time of writing, in Vazhakulam, pineapple was being sold in shops at the rate of Rs 100 for 7 kg. This has got the farmers thinking of putting in safety precautions going ahead.
“This year we are going slow on planting into newer lands,” says Jiji. “We don’t know if it is worth it.”
The reason behind such thinking is that given the high lease rates already agreed upon in many instances, it is no longer feasible to respect them.
“I am renegotiating with land owners,” says Siby. “I am telling them that we will agree to take the lands if they agree to give us a go-ahead with half of the advance on the condition that we will not pay them anything next year unless the market rate for pineapple is above Rs 25,” says Siby.
“Some land owners have even agreed to forgo this years’ lease amount seeing our losses,” says Binu. “But not every owner is the same.”
One large farmer The Lede spoke to, on condition of anonymity admitted that his plan is to pick up fights with existing leased land owners and nullify the agreement on one pretext or the other to stop the loss.
“I have gone bankrupt,” he stated.
How Government Can Support
“As of now no announcements have been made with regards to pineapple farmers,” says Baby John. “All that is there is the moratorium.”
But none of the farmers The Lede spoke to considered it to be of any use.
“Moratorium is useless,” says Jiji Thomas. “It is only deferring payment and eventually we will have to pay interest as well as interest on that interest. “If the government were to announce writing off of the interest or part of the capital it would be a huge relief,” says Jiji.
“Waiving off of farm loans looks good on paper but it is not a practical solution,” says Siby George.
“Firstly government doesn’t have that kind of money anymore nor can banks absorb those losses. A practical thing that the government could do would be to ask leased land owners not to ask for lease amount for a year or to forgo it altogether this year.”
“It will spread the loss amongst a larger number of people, thereby reducing the actual loss amount per person. If you consider the land ceiling of 10 acres in Kerala and the existing average lease rates which tops around Rs 60,000, the maximum loss a land owner will incur will be Rs 6 lakh. And it wouldn’t be loss if the payment is only deferred for a year.
Moreover, for someone owning land that loss will be absorbable as they are never fully dependent on lease money for survival whereas the farmers are going under with no hope from the losses this year,” he says.
“The government has already come up with such announcement with regards to rent for houses and buildings during lockdown. The same should be though about for the pineapple farmers too,” continues Siby.
“Such a measure will be a big relief and will help pineapple farmers to try and offset the unprecedented losses suffered this year,” he says.
The Land Owner's Dilemma
“While their demand is understandable, it is not a very practical solution,” says Bindhu George Mechery, a land owner in Marady who has leased out her land for pineapple farming.
“What guarantee is there that they will get good prices next time?” she asks. “Farming is like gambling. You get what you get. So it has to been as such. In my case, I have leased my land to a neighbour of ours. He had paid me lease amount upfront for last year but hasn’t told me anything about it this year nor have I asked him. There are two more years left on the lease.”
“I see his condition and understand his plight. Moreover, my acreage is less and hence the lease amount is not significantly high. I can afford to be lenient,” she says. “But the same cannot be expected of those who have leased large tracts of lands to total strangers with legal agreements involved. Someone or the other will indeed ask as to when lease farmers don’t pay us additionally from the unexpected profits they earn in some years, why should we be concerned when they make a loss?”
“In today’s scenario, everyone is in bad shape. Those who are totally dependent on the lease amounts and have made plans accordingly wouldn’t be in a condition to give such leeway either. I understand that it will indeed encourage the planter to feel motivated enough to try one more year. But as things stand, everyone is worse off.”
“Also what if they don’t make any profits in a year and defer it for one more year? By the time the lease itself would have expired and we will be left with nothing.”
Recovering money is not the only concern for land owners, says Bindhu.
“If lease farmers leave their crops unattended, it will be an added headache for land owners. It is not an easy crop to clear the land of. At some point government should also think of the plight of the land owners. I have made double losses this year. We had leased a part of the land for pineapple while we were raising broiler chickens on the rest.”
“At the beginning of the lockdown, when rumours fed fear of poultry and the prices crashed to less than Rs 25 per kg, many like me were left unpaid. I am yet to get any money from those who had supplied me chicks to be raised. When people ran out of feed some even left their chicken to run freely. These are all sources of income on which people like me make a living. I don’t have any other fixed sources of income,” says Bindhu.
“So asking land owners to defer lease amounts is not going to be without pain either. But I understand why they are making such demands,” she says.
When asked if the government of Kerala would consider making an announcement as is being demanded by pineapple farmers, VS Sunil Kumar, the Minister for Agriculture in Kerala, told The Lede, “All things are under consideration.”
He wouldn’t elaborate any further.
As government remains silent, a whole cabal of farmers and landowners wait in anxiety for relief.