Avocado is a blessing for coffee growers
Shree Padre, Kasargod
For many years Veera Arasu thought the 800 avocado trees growing on his coffee plantation merely served a functional purpose. They were there to provide shade to his precious coffee shrubs. He had planted the avocado trees after drought struck his village, Thandikudi, in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, in 2002.
He grew oranges, too, which he sold to a wholesale merchant for a small profit. In 2014, he recalls, the merchant made him a surprising offer. He asked Arasu if he could buy his avocado fruit on a per tree basis like he did his oranges. Arasu figured Rs 1,000 per tree would be a good price. There would be some negotiation surely, he thought. So he quoted Rs 2,000 per tree.
To his surprise, the merchant agreed and Arasu found himself Rs 10 lakh richer. He shook his head in amazement. The merchant is going to lose all his money and return with a sob story, he thought. So he kept Rs 5 lakh aside, thinking he would return it to the merchant when he came back to weep on his shoulder.
To Arasu’s astonishment, the merchant returned smiling. He pressed another Rs 5 lakh into Arasu’s hands. “Sir, this is the profit I made from your avocado. Keep this money as an advance and sell your fruits to me next year too.”
It took time for the 58-year-old Arasu to digest this. A veteran farmer, he is a consultant to 10 coffee estates and supervises some of them. He began calculating how much he could earn from avocado in the coming year.
“To earn the same income I will have to produce five tonnes of coffee,” he told himself. “For that I would need at least 12 acres. Plus, I would need to invest in coffee plants, labour and managers.”
He realised that avocado as an intercrop would be far more remunerative than coffee, his main crop. Around 40 avocado trees could be planted on an acre to provide shade. In four years the trees would bear fruit. Without much care or expense, a farmer could earn as much as Rs 1,00,000 from avocado alone in an area famed for its aromatic Arabica coffee.
“I earned a windfall without any anticipation,” he says. “Other farmers, I thought, could also earn more with just a little effort. So I began propagating avocado.”
Pepper, hill banana, cotton and citrus fruits are also grown in Thandikudi. But now several farmers grow avocado for an income. Apart from Arasu, there is Mohana Sundaram, Ravichandran, Sekhar Nagaraj and Shamugaraja. Nagaraj’s Kodai nursery produces avocado grafts on an indent basis. He has imported avocado varieties too like the famous Hass.
Today, Kodaikanal in the lower Palani hills of Dindigul district has quietly notched a record. It earns a whopping Rs 12 to 15 crore per year from avocado alone.
“There are about 12 lakh avocado trees here,” says Dr M. Ananthan, former head of Thadiyankudisai Horticulture Research Station who promoted avocado in the Palani hills for nearly a decade. The station undertook nearly 100 campaign meetings in five years and released the TKD-1 variety, the only official avocado variety released throughout Asia.
“We guessed that avocado and pepper could thrive in this area,” recalls Dr Anantham. His efforts have borne fruit. Pepper has seen the highest price increase in the last two years. But the real winner has been avocado, the smooth butterfruit.
In India, avocado is grown as a scattered crop, mainly in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Sikkim and the northeastern Himalayan belt. Assam and Himachal Pradesh also grow the fruit. But it is the three South Indian states that are the frontrunners. It is believed that the British introduced the fruit in Karnataka.
Avocado is buttery in texture and nutty in taste. That’s why it is also called butterfruit. Perhaps because it isn’t sweet, avocado didn’t gain in popularity for a long time. The IT boom in Bengaluru changed its fortunes. Techies have a yen for the fruit. The city consumes the highest quantity of avocado in India. The fruit is relished in milkshakes.
Demand appears to outstrip supply. No avocado orchards have come up in India. It is categorised as a ‘minor fruit’ so it doesn’t have a mandate for research. The tree is grown prolifically in Kodagu district as a shade tree for coffee or along fields, it isn’t grown as a monocrop.
It was the late Alagar Swami who introduced butterfruit to the Palani hills. Swami, who was the MLA from the area, was a close relative of Mohana Sundaram, 64, a farmer in Thandikudi. “He is the father of avocado,” says Sundaram. “He brought two avocado plants from Malaysia in 1965. Until then we knew nothing about this fruit.”
In 1967 Swami quit politics and became a full-fledged farmer. His two trees began yielding fruit from 1971. Swami noticed that the yield was good and the fruit was tasty. He began distributing avocado seeds to whoever came to his home. “No visitor returned emptyhanded. He would give a few avocado seeds to everyone. At least 1,000 people must have planted those seeds since 1980,” says Sundaram.
He says the two historic trees Swami brought from Malaysia fathered butterfruit trees in lower Palani.
Sundaram remembers every detail of those bygone years because he was deeply involved in championing avocado. Kodaikanal attracted tourists from all over India and Sundaram would sit near tea stalls with his small pile of avocado fruit and urge people to try it. “Come on, try this new fruit. I will tell you how to eat it,” he would say and offer free samples. At that time avocado used to sell for 5-10 paise.
“In the initial two or three years I struggled a lot to make this fruit gain acceptance. Whenever I visited Madurai, I took a bagful of avocado. I would offer samples. Then I would try to sell the fruit. Nobody had heard of it. It wasn’t a sweet fruit. I would offer the fruit to doctors. They didn’t know of its health benefits. I had to explain a lot,” he says.
By 1982, the price of butterfruit rose to 25 paise and then Rs 1. In 1992 it began to sell by weight. Sundaram took the fruit to Calicut where he was surprised to find it selling for Rs 30 per kg.
Today, a single avocado tree fetches him Rs 5,000. Last year, Sundaram earned Rs 23,000 from one tree. This is not only his highest, but possibly a record of sorts in avocado farming.
Another reason that led to the spread of avocado was drought. Lower Palani witnessed three successive drought years from 2002. The financial position of coffee estates worsened. To tide over the crisis, estate owners like Arasu began cutting and selling trees like silver oak.
But this felling proved detrimental. The upper canopy had protected coffee plants from the direct rays of the sun. With the canopy missing, coffee yields began to decline drastically.
Dr Parthiban, then head of the Thadiankudisai Horticulture Research Station, suggested planting avocado, a fast-growing shade providing tree. It was a crisis management effort. Arasu planted 1,100 trees on his 30-acre coffee plantation. Only 800 survived.
“Now, after the success of avocado, many people congratulate me. But honestly, I didn’t plant these trees with any hope of earning a good income from them,” says Arasu.
Under his advice, around 1.5 lakh avocado plants have been planted. They will come to bearing in another two to three years.
Grown at heights
Butterfruit can be grown at between 600 and 2,500 metres above sea level. Thandikudi, for instance, is at 1,200 metres. Trees planted above 1,500 metres need direct sunshine. An annual rainfall of 700 to 1,500 mm and temperatures from 18 to 33oC are ideal. Red soil and forest soil with good organic content along with a pH of 5 to 6.5 are most suitable for the tree.
Farmers prefer seedlings for grafting. In India we have descendants of three varieties — from the West Indies, Guatemala and Mexico. Due to cross-pollination, more varieties are available.
Big butterfruits weigh between 200 and 400 gm. Some grow to 600 gm. The heaviest an avocado has grown here is 2.5 kg. Interestingly, avocado does not ripen on the tree. “This is a big plus point for the farmer. If there is a glut in the market, the farmer can leave his fruits on the tree for around a month,” says Dr Ananthan.
It’s also not easy for a rookie farmer to find out when the fruits have ripened. Generally, when the green colour begins to fade it’s time to pluck the fruit.
Experienced farmers say if you wait for three weeks till the seed begins to rattle inside, you will lose 20 per cent of the fruit. The best avocados are for the table. The rest are sold to the cosmetics industry or to the processing sector.
2 crops a year
In Tamil Nadu, butterfruit provides two crops a year. “No other area in the world is blessed with two crops of avocado,” says Dr Anantham. “Here avocado is available for eight months a year.”
Each season lasts for four months with a fallow period of two months in between. In the lower Palani hills, the ‘no crop’ months are September-October and March-April. This means from May to August and from November to February, the fruit is available. But, depending on variety, altitude and climate, there are differences to this thumb rule.
The summer crop is more remunerative than the winter crop. Prices fluctuate, though. The average farm gate price is between Rs 30 and 120 per kg. Big trees yield 200-250 kg of fruit per year. There are trees that yield half a tonne. Depending on spacing, around 70 trees can be planted on an acre in a coffee plantation. If spacing is wider, 40 trees can be grown.
Sundaram pioneered the growth of avocado and created a good market for it. In the 1990s he contacted fruit wholesalers at Kozhikode, Thrissur and Mumbai. These efforts created a good supply chain from lower Palani to the rest of India’s consuming centres.
“For 200 days in a year, about Rs 5-6 crore worth of butterfruit is sent every day from Oothu in Tamil Nadu to different cities. Outsiders don’t know where the fruit is headed. What we do know is that demand is steadily rising,” says Arasu.
Oothu, a small town nearby, is the nerve centre of the avocado trade. From here the fruit is sent to Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Thrissur, Kozhikode and other cities.
Sundaram even tried to find out if the fruit could be exported. But the buying agency wanted surety that farmers could supply the fruit all through the year. The elderly farmer couldn’t give an answer. So, singlehandedly, he began a survey of three states. He visited Wayanad in Kerala, Kodagu in Karnataka and a few pockets in Tamil Nadu.
He concluded that avocado could be made available for 300 days a year. “For three months, from February to March, it is difficult to get butterfruit,” he explains.
Unfortunately, he fell ill after his survey and had to shelve his idea of exporting avocado. “A thorough survey has to be done three times a year – when the tree flowers, as soon as the fruit sets and when the fruit grows a little. On the basis of such data we can renew our attempt at export,” he says.
Markets & prices
The good news for farmers is that the price of avocado is on an upward spiral. The downside is that middlemen dominate the trade.
Sundaram has 500 butterfruit trees. During last year’s Pongal celebrations he sold a tonne of avocado at Rs 120 per kg.
P.R.M. Ravichandran, another avocado farmer from Thandikudi, has 150 avocado trees growing amidst his coffee plants and orange trees. A few of his trees yield half a tonne. “Our farm gate price is Rs 40 per kg on average. Most of my trees yield 300-350 kg per year. One tree fetches around Rs 10,000 to 12,000. But then we get a good harvest on alternate years,” he says.
The avocado market, like other fruit markets, is in the clutches of middlemen. Once the fruit sets they fix a ‘per tree’ price with the farmer. After the deal is clinched, the middlemen take the responsibility of harvesting and transporting the fruit.
The fruit is generally harvested with a bamboo stick attached to a hook with a sack at its tapered end. The harvested fruit is carelessly filled into sacks. Plastic crates, that could reduce damage during transport, are not being used. Like jackfruit, butterfruit trees have grown very large — making harvesting tougher. Pruning is not done.
However, rejuvenation of trees is possible. For this, the tree trunk is cut a couple of feet above the ground and selected shoots that emerge from the sides are permitted to grow. Sundaram has followed this practice on his small plot.
Hailstorm damage while the fruit is growing and untimely rain are major headaches for farmers. Pests like stem borer or diseases like anthracnose also strike avocado.
Tree trunks dry up due to lack of maintenance. Such trees can be rejuvenated by cutting their stem at the bottom and by providing good manure.
“Butterfruit is a sunrise crop,” remarks Dr Sharath V. Hiththalamani, retired Additional Director of Karnataka’s Horticulture Department.
“Bengaluru city consumes an estimated 10,000 tonnes of avocado every year. We are seeing the first signs of butterfruit development. This is just the beginning,” he says.
Other cities lag behind in avocado consumption. “In Bengaluru this fruit is available all 12 months. The city has about 5,000 juice shops. Each keeps 10 kg of avocado in stock. They charge Rs 60-80 for a glass of avocado milkshake. It is the costliest one on their menu,” says Dr Hiththalamani. “Bangaloreans aren’t eating avocado. They are drinking it.”
The high price of avocado isn’t a bubble. “Just look at the increase in fruit eating after the IT boom. Expensive imported fruits are available even in small towns,” says Arasu. “Demand for avocado is rising without any advertising. In Tamil Nadu, after the sale of lottery tickets was banned, lottery shops became fruit shops. As more consumers become health-conscious and opt for natural foods, demand will rise.”
The Central Horticulture Experiment Station (CHES), Chettalli, a sub-centre of the IIHR (Indian Institute of Horticulture Research) in Bengaluru, has also been getting farmers interested in avocado. In May last year CHES organised a brainstorming session on the avocado with farmers.
Arasu’s claim that he earns Rs 8 to 10 lakh from butterfruit without any great effort has made farmers in Kodagu sit up and take note. A few study teams visited Thandikudi and its adjacent areas to see things firsthand.
Says Shivakumar, a Kodagu farmer who has gone on two study trips to Thandikudi: “Many Kodagu farmers are inspired. Demand for avocado grafts has increased. Some farmers are discussing the prospect of planting thousands of avocado trees with me.”
Dr Senthil Kumar, Head of CHES, says his station can produce only seedlings of avocado. “This year we produced 4,000 seedlings. But the demand is three-fold,” he says.
Times have really changed for avocado. Sundaram recalls the old days when, like Swami, he would give seeds for free to farmers and some of them would quietly throw them away outside his gate.
Thimmegouda, a farmer near Bidadi near Bengaluru, has planted 1,500 avocado grafts as a monocrop. This is, in all probability, India’s first avocado plantation. He says he might intercrop the fruit with lime at a later stage.
Dr. Hiththalamani has been helping farmers keen to plant avocado. “There are many farmers around Bengaluru who have planted 50 or 100 trees. If you include Tumkur district, the newly planted butterfruit plants might be covering a total of 700 acres.”
This year, Arasu harvested his own avocado and fixed a farm gate price of Rs 40 and spread the word. His experiment was a success. “When I didn’t harvest my crop I got Rs 30 per kg. This year, hailstorms damaged my crop considerably. We got only about 200 kg from 200 trees. At an average price of Rs 35 per kg for 200 trees, I earned Rs 14 lakh.”
Arasu too feels prices will not decrease because demand is increasing. “None of us knows which variety is good. We are our own scientists,” he quips.
Abhilash Ghore, a butterfruit lover from Pune, and his friends have formed an All India Avocado Producers Association. They have also launched avocadoindia.com to create awareness about the fruit. He plans to spread good farming practices and develop a market for avocado.
“It is a very healthy fruit. But people don’t know about its health benefits or how to eat it. I want to start a campaign — ‘Eat half an avocado every day’.”
Ghore points out the shortcomings in farming and marketing. “Most of the fruits fall down while harvesting. Using bags for transport damages the fruit further. In the list of high value crops, avocado occupies the 10th place. If we can improve farming practices and develop quality consciousness in harvesting and transport, avocado can become India’s second or third high-value crop,” he says hopefully.
Contact: Veera Arasu: 094438 33309; firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr M Ananthan: 09842175889; email@example.com
Mohana Sundaram: 09843460449