Lucknow: Tanzim, a marginal farmer from Uttar Pradesh's Sambhal district, grows strawberries on a 1.2-acre plot of land leased from his friend. He generally exports the variety of strawberries he cultivates to Delhi, Lucknow and Mussoorie. However, due to the lockdown to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, he has been finding it difficult to find buyers. Even online grocery stores that would procure from him have stopped buying.
The strawberries have now started to decompose after Tanzim was not able to take the fruit to mandis due to the lockdown.
"We start sowing the fruit in October and the season continues till the end of May, but due to the lockdown and unseasonal rains and the hailstorm, we are incurring a huge loss. Strawberry farmers are destroying their crops since there is no demand and the supply chain has been disrupted due to the lockdown," he said.
Tanzim had bought the plants from Madhya Pradesh and he mentioned that close to 20,000 saplings were planted on one acre of land. “The cost of one sapling is nine rupees. The farming is labour intensive as it requires drip irrigation, continuous spraying of pesticides and fertilisers, manpower for plucking and transportation to the market. It is a costly affair and farmers will not be able to repay the debt at least for the next two years. The government should give us some compensation,” he added.
Arif, another strawberry grower, said that despite Sambhal being dry land, he has grown the fruit over five acres of land. With the strawberry season almost at its peak, he has been left empty-handed. Arif said he has not been able to sell a single strawberry this season, and his family has been suffering as a result.
“I had invested Rs 2.5 lakh by taking a loan on my Kisan Credit Card in October, but just when we expected a good output, we are being forced to uproot the plant. The crop was badly affected due to unseasonal rain and a hailstorm and I was already hit hard. I was hopeful of making some profit, especially during the wedding season but we are now incurring losses due to the lockdown," he added.
To offset some of the damage, strawberry farmers in Sambhal are now cultivating chillies and ridge gourd.
Ravi, who has been growing three varieties of strawberries over six acres, said nearly 80% of his crop was rotting in the fields. He said he did not pick the fruit due to negligible demand. “As the major markets are only partially open and with hotels and restaurant continuing to remain shut, merely 200 to 250 kgs of strawberries are being sold everyday, against a yield of 16 quintal per day,” he said, adding that tourists and ice cream production are major sources of income, but due to travel restrictions owing to the lockdown, there is no demand for the fruit.
"We have suffered a huge loss, first due to hailstorm and now when mandis are shut due to the lockdown. It has broken the back of strawberry growers and investments have almost reached a point of no return. Before the situation becomes worse and farmers are debt ridden, the government must step up with relief measures,” he added.
Watermelon market withering:
The lockdown is not only affecting strawberry growers, but also those who grow other fruits, including watermelon. While a strawberry grower suffers a loss of thousands of rupees per day, several others dependent on fruit farming are being forced to sell their produce at throwaway prices.
Jahid Ali, one of the largest producers of vegetables and watermelon in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district is facing a tough time as well, with the demand for watermelon taking a nosedive. “A lot of these fruits go to the juice making industry – restaurants, juice shops, tea shops, and the like. But with the lockdown in place, farmers are unable to move their produce. They are now abandoning full-grown fruits in their fields,” Ali said.
Watermelon, which is usually sold for between Rs 20 and 30 per kg by farmers, is now fetching them only between Rs 5 to 7 per kg. “How will the farmer survive if it is sold for less than its production cost?” Ali asked.
Ramavadh Yadav, a farmer in from Dewa in Barabanki said that he had grown watermelon on five acres of land after investing one lakh rupees. “A few days before Janta Curfew (March 22), traders from other states visited my field and agreed to buy watermelons for Rs 15,000 per tonne. We were expecting good returns this year but all our hopes have been dashed,” he said.
“Soon after the lockdown announcement, traders called to say that they will not be buying watermelons as markets have shut down. We waited for a couple more days, but no one came to buy the melons. Finally, we had no option but to destroy the crops or sell them at a throwaway price,” he added.
Harinam Singh Verma, Vice-President of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Uttar Pradesh, said that all farmers, irrespective of what they grow, have been hit due to the lockdown. "Even I had grown watermelon and vegetables on an acre of land but due to lockdown, I have not found any buyer so far,” he added.
When asked why, Singh said that most of the mandis in the state are in the cities of Meerut, Lucknow, Faizabad, Muzaffarnagar and Barabanki and that the mandi is a primarily Muslim majority area. “It is known that all Muslim areas are in the red zone. How will a farmer go and sell their produce? The government is not fighting the coronavirus but engaging in polarisation,” he said, referring to the Tablighi Jamaat incident. “They do not have any sympathy for the farmers,” he added.
Singh said that if lockdown extended beyond May 17, farmers will be forced to starve along with the migrant workers.