How To Double Farmers’ Income With Popcorn
About 25 kilometres outside of Hyderabad, lies Thukkuguda village, part of Rangareddy district of Telangana. Here, a gated plot of land opens to reveal four acres of gold and green – popcorn plants glinting in the sun.
A lone worker clears the male flowers off a set of plants, effectively making these plants entirely female.
Srikanth Reddy, 33, is excited to show The Lede around the field. “This is our research field,” says Srikanth. “It was begun 12 years ago and I joined the company four years back.” Srikanth is the Production Head of VenAgro, a popcorn manufacturing firm based in Hyderabad.
At this field, 10 to 20 parent strains of the Indian popcorn plant are combined genetically to yield about a thousand combinations. Of these, Srikanth says there could be a hundred ‘positive’ combinations. In the past 10 years, since research began, the firm has come up with five seeds.
Of these, the best one, they claim, is a high quality, high yielding seed internally numbered 934 by the firm.
There are four types of corn the world over – dent corn, popcorn, sweet corn and baby corn. India is an exporter of dent corn, used in the animal and poultry feed industry as well as to make starch. Popcorn, sweet corn and baby corn are largely for human consumption.
Until recently, popcorn was being imported in India. The Lede had earlier written about the irregularities indulged in by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) while allowing imports of popcorn to the detriment of Indian popcorn farmers.
Popcorn is largely cultivated in Karnataka, Telangana and parts of Bihar, Punjab and Haryana.
Commercial Production Of Popcorn Seed
“At this field, we separate male plants from the female plants,” explained Srikanth Reddy. A corn plant has both male and female flowers. What Srikanth and his team does is to remove the male flowers from a set of plants in order to avoid cross-pollination.
They then shower the pollen from the plant that they want to hybridise the female plants with and cover these flowers with a paper bag. “This prevents any further pollen from falling on the female flower,” he explained.
Once they find promising hybrids, these seeds are further tested in a field 115 kilometres away. “There is about 200 acres of our own land here but only 50 acres are currently of standing crops,” said Srikanth Reddy.
There are different types of soil in this large farm. Black soil on one side, clayey soil on another and sandy soil in yet another part. Corn varieties are planted in each soil type and observed closely. “Data regarding height of the shoot, width and length of the leaves, the tenacity of the plant to withstand pest attacks and the size of the cob are all noted continuously,” said R Thirumalesh, an employee at the Nalgonda field.
The plants are tested in different climactic conditions in different seasons – Kharif and Rabi – before being handed over to farmers. Drip irrigation is employed to control moisture.
“The best seeds of the lot will then be picked for commercial production. We give them free of cost to farmers with a buyback agreement. Once the farmers are enthused and decide to use our seeds, we work with them and monitor their crop with our staff,” said Srikanth.
The firm provides advice to farmers on what fertiliser and pesticide to use and when to spray them.
Processing Popcorn Grain
The firm collects the cob from farmers at a rate of Rs 22 per kilogram at 30% moisture. “This is then processed in our plant in Kompally, Hyderabad to 12-14% moisture. The final product cost when it goes out for sale is between Rs 50 and Rs 60 per kg,” said B Naveen Kumar, Director of VenAgro.
The 934 seed developed by the firm, they claim, is as good as imported popcorn grain. “100 grams of imported popcorn grain gives 4-4.3 litres of popped corn,” said T Raghavendra Rao, Director of VenAgro. “100 grams of our 934 grain gives 3.8-4 litres of popped corn. The imported grain gets soggy since it puffs up more. Ours is crispier and stays crisp for longer,” he added.
The pre-existing Indian popcorn variety yields 2-2.5 litres per 100 grams of grain.
Popcorn & Maize In India
“In 2018-19, the overall maize cultivation in India was to the tune of 9.2 million acres,” Sujay Rakshit, Director, Maize Research Centre in Ludhiana told The Lede. “Maize is the number three foodgrain cultivated in India after rice and wheat. Domestic need is much more than production at present,” he said.
The Maize Research Institute is the nodal institute for R&D of new varieties of corn seed. Since its inception, scientists here have commercially produced three varieties of seed for use by farmers.
The first variety is called Amber popcorn and was released in 1975. The second variety is called BPCH6 and was released in 2012. The most recent variety called DMHRHP1402 was released in 2019.
“We provide seeds largely to the north western and central zones,” continued Rakshit. “Farmers in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab are already using these seeds. If we find that farmers are interested, we ask state agriculture departments to conduct zonal trials and procure the seeds. Since agriculture is a state subject, the respective state government decides what seeds to pick up,” he said.
When asked about a qualitative comparison between the latest Indian seed versus the imported grain, Rakshit stated that it was on par. “One of the leading players in the popcorn business is now licensing this seed from us. They have conducted their tests. So I understand from this that our seed is quite good.”
According to the Maize Research Institute, the demand for maize (of all varieties) is expected to touch 50 million tonnes by 2025. The current production is 28 million tonnes, a little over half the projected demand.
The current average yield is 50 kilograms per hectare per annum. This, of course, could be improved drastically by simply taking a few steps to streamline farming.
“Currently Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have maximum area under maize cultivation,” said Rakshit. “Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan together constitute 50% of total maize crop in India.”
The Economics Of Popcorn Farming
VenAgro founder Venu Akula has rigorously worked out the math through his own experience in planting popcorn.
Adding up costs of seed procurement, soil preparation, pesticide, fertiliser, harvesting, fencing and maintenance, Akula says a farmer would incur costs of Rs 38,298 per acre.
Farmers also have to make a one time investment per acre - setting up of drip irrigation, solar fencing to keep animals and birds away and other miscellaneous expenses. This amount comes to Rs 93,000 per acre.
“I have not taken into account the subsidies available for drip irrigation for farmers. There is 90% subsidy available for drip irrigation in Telangana. But since the quality of the tubes is poor, it is better for the farmer to go in for the initial investment in drip irrigation,” he said.
The total cost per acre comes to Rs 1.3 lakh according to Akula’s workings.
He then showed the workings of how the farmer benefits. “If there is a yield of 2500 kilograms per acre, the revenue to the farmer would be Rs 22 per kg. In the first season, the farmer makes a loss of Rs 76,000 odd. He will make a smaller loss in the second crop. By the third crop the farmer breaks even and from thereon he enjoys profits,” said Akula.
According to Akula, there is an urgent need to provide support to popcorn farmers so that they can take to the crop without fear.
“Crop insurance is desperately needed and it has to be worked out on a case by case basis,” said Akula. “A season of popcorn is 6 months, so for a year and a half, the farmer will need some compensation for the losses he will incur. After this, the market forces will take over and the farmer will continue to reap profits,” he said.
Doubling Income Per Acre
On 28 February 2016, at a farmers’ rally in Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that his government would double farmers’ income by 2022.
While this announcement was met with severe scepticism, the economic think tank of the government, Niti Aayog, released a report in 2017 about how it could be achieved.
The report argues that doubling farm output need not necessarily result in doubling of income. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households of 2013, the average annual income of a household including both farm and non-farm income was Rs 77,112. This is divided into 60% income from farm activities and 40% from non-farm activities (salaries, business etc).
Cultivation generated income of Rs 36,938 while livestock generated income of Rs 9176 per household. Livestock contributed over 19% in total farm income of an agricultural household.
With this in mind, corn or maize appears to be a possible panacea to farmers struggling with little income and being hit by climate extremes.
“Maize can replace rice in the Kharif season,” said Sujay Rakshit, Director, Maize Research Centre in Ludhiana. “Water is a challenge in many parts of India, so during the summer, maize can be substituted for rice cultivation.”
Rakshit argued that maize is one of the most promising, yet under-cultivated crops in India. “There is tremendous demand for maize from the feed industry and now the popcorn industry. Now government is considering allowing the use of maize in ethanol fuel industry as well. Whenever maize is damaged and is not fit for consumption - that can go for ethanol production. If maize gets a little bit of government support, it can do well,” he said.
Rakshit explained the interventions required from the government in order to make the maize industry more organised.
“In the case of rice, there is assured procurement of rice and wheat by government as it has MSP (Minimum Support Price) and goes to the FCI (Food Corporation of India). Though maize has MSP, it is not followed because grain procurement is totally unorganised. Agents go directly to the farmers and buy. Maize also has a problem with storage. If it catches fungus, it is toxic for human consumption. The government needs to set up drying facilities and storage silos at the Taluka level,” he said.
Rakshit also argued that more funding is needed for maize. “Research funding is less for maize. Compared to rice, wheat, pulses, research in maize is very less. More support would be great. R&D is going on in our institute but much more can be done,” he said.
“When we speak of doubling farmers’ income, one aspect is to increase production itself but when you link it to animal husbandry, the results are fantastic. Baby corn can be harvested in 40 days, sweet corn can be harvested in 70-75 days. The greens can be fed to the animals.
In fact in Punjab and Haryana, silage is becoming a big business. At the soft dough stage of the corn itself, the plants will be chopped into very small pieces and put it into plastic bags and sealed. Or a trench will be made in the field, the maize plant put into it and pressed and covered up. By microbial activity, lactic acid is formed and it is ‘pickled’. After 45-50 days, it becomes very good for animals. Their milk production is very good when they are fed the silage,” he said.
Venu Akula agrees with Rakshit, that much can be achieved by encouraging farmers to cultivate different types of corn, especially popcorn.
“Our farmers will prosper by popcorn cultivation if a few things are tweaked – imports should be controlled by having a Minimum Import Price, farmers taught about the benefits of cultivating popcorn for the local market and some monetary support needs to be there for farmers for the first two to three crop seasons. It is also important to change crop insurance guidelines so that they benefit individual farmers, rather than looking at them as a whole. And once there is more research in popcorn seeds and better quality seeds come into the market, domestic demand can easily be met in a few years.”
According to Akula, the domestic popcorn market is at Rs 6500 crore currently and growing by 20% every year.
“60,000 to 75,000 acres need to come under popcorn cultivation to be self-sufficient in the domestic market,” said Akula. On average around 50,000 acres are under popcorn cultivation in India, says Akula, although it has dipped to 30,000 acres last year.
“But farmers are still using the older popcorn seed varieties which are not on par with imported popcorn grains. The government needs to educate farmers about the better seeds available now which are on par with global standards,” he said.