The Strawberry Farmers of Darjeeling Stranded with a Sour Harvest
Commercial cultivation of strawberries started in the North Bengal region of West Bengal in 2012. More than a 100 farmers are now tending to strawberries over 151 bighas of land. But due to erratic weather and unfavourable temperature this year, a large number of farmers fear it is going to be a sour harvest as the fruits are not ripening as they should.
Gurvinder Singh 30 Jan 2023 1:02 PM GMT
Darjeeling, West Bengal
Prabha Tirkey Chacko cultivates strawberries in her half bigha farmland at Hansqua Dulurchat village in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. In 2021, the 45-year-old farmer earned Rs 200,000 (two lakh) from her bumper harvest of strawberries. But this year, she fears she may not even get half her usual berries output.
“I made handsome profits each year, but this year has turned out to be bad,” Prabha told Gaon Connection. “Usually, the strawberries are ready for harvest by the start of January but the production has been delayed this year,” she said, pointing to the still-unripe strawberries that should have ripened by now.
Prabha said she had stopped going to her farm as it pained her to see the frugal and bad quality of the strawberries. “The yield stood at three tonnes last year but I will be surprised if I get even half of that this year. The New Year has been unkind to us,” she added.
Over 100 farmers in the North Bengal region of West Bengal are staring at severe losses in strawberry farming due to the delay in fruiting. They say it could be the impact of the changing climate and unfavourable weather conditions. And scientists second them.
“The change in climate is very apparent. Massive deforestation has led to the rise in temperature. The strawberry seeds require a temperature of 16 to 24 degree Celsius. But it was hot and humid this year and not favourable for strawberry farming,” Amrendra Pandey, technical officer at the Department of Biotechnology, University of North Bengal, told Gaon Connection.
He went on to inform that the sowing of strawberry seeds that is done by October end should lead to the harvesting by December end or beginning of January. “The warm temperature affected the growth of the plants and the fruiting did not happen by November as it should have ideally. The plants were weak and there was scanty fruiting,” Pandey added. The exact loss in production will only be known by March end when the season ends, he said.
Strawberry farmers stare at losses
About 151 bighas (1 bigha = 0.13 hectare) of land are under strawberry farming in the state across the districts of Nadia, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Balurghat, and Cooch Behar. Last year, the farms collectively yielded 50 metric tonnes of produce.
“I had sowed strawberries in about a bigha of land and was expecting a yield of 2.5 tonnes,” Shantigopal Roy, a farmer from Patiram Jote village in Darjeeling district, told Gaon Connection. But, like Prabha, he said he would be very fortunate if he got even half the yield.
“I have been cultivating strawberries for the past four years and have made good money as the fruit is in huge demand by food processing industries too. In anticipation of a good yield, I invested nearly two lakh rupees for ramping up infrastructure for my farm. But there are hardly any strawberries on my farm,” the 60-year-old complained. He said he was not sure if he would continue with strawberry cultivation.
Commercial cultivation of strawberries in North Bengal
University of North Bengal located in Siliguri is credited for commercially starting strawberry farming in the plains of North Bengal in 2012.
Farmers were initially reluctant to take it up as there was a lack of cold storage facilities for the perishable fruit. “Farmers also felt that the fruit was too costly and finding customers for it would be difficult. The price of the fruit hovered at around Rs 700-800 a kilogram even a decade ago,” Ranadhir Chakraborty, head of the university’s Department of Biotechnology, told Gaon Connection. It remains about the same now, he added.
“We broke that mindset and encouraged them to start cultivation in small patches of land in 2012. The result was overwhelming and farmers made a good profit,” Chakraborty said. Slowly, people from other districts also began strawberry farming, he added.
So far, farmers have been earning well by cultivating strawberries. But this year has been bad. “I have never seen such a sad state of affairs in the past four years that I have been cultivating strawberries. My strawberry plants are turning black or dying. If you know of any way I can save them, let me know,” Shantigopal Roy, the strawberry farmer from Patiram Jote village, said despondently.
Also Read: The Strawberry Farmers of Odisha
There are a handful of farmers who, against the odds, are looking forward to a good harvest. Thirty-two-year-old Bhadra Roy of Kaliaganj in Uttar Dinajpur district is one of them.
“I have already harvested around 30 kilogrammes of the fruit from one bigha of land. The strawberry is very good in quality and dark red. I am expecting to make a profit of Rs 50,000 by the end of the season as traders have already booked orders. We are having cold weather here [Uttar Dinajpur district] which is favourable for strawberries,” he said happily.
But while Bhadra is expecting sweet returns from his strawberries, most other farmers in North Bengal, are going to be left with a sour taste in their mouths.