New Delhi: Difficult times have befallen the royalty of the fruit kingdom. Maharashtra farmers cultivating the famed alphonso mangoes, one of the mainstays of the economy of the state’s Konkan region, have been left counting their losses as the second Covid wave exacerbates the impact of a series of knocks suffered since last year.
These include the 2020 Covid lockdown, which came during the peak alphonso harvesting season, and the Cyclone Nisarga, which battered the Konkan coast in June last year.
Maharashtra, one of the states worst affected by the Covid pandemic, has currently imposed lockdown-like restrictions to check infections. While the sale of mangoes was exempted from weekend restrictions and allowed for a stipulated four-hour period, the highly perishable nature of the fruit has created challenges.
According to farmers, not only are they dealing with a crash in domestic demand, but exports have taken a sharp dip in the face of restrictions imposed on flights from India by some of the mango variety’s biggest markets, including the UAE and Europe. Add to it the farmers’ difficulty accessing treatments mandated for exported crops, and cost surges on account of labour and transportation.
Farmers estimate that the price of a box containing 5-6 dozen alphonso mangoes has crashed by at least half to Rs 3,000/dozen, against the usual price of Rs 6,000-7,000/dozen.
“With the implementation of the lockdown, the rate of mango started to crash from 20 April, similar to last year, when the lockdown was announced,” said Rajan Seth, an alphonso farmer based in Majgaon, Ratnagiri, who has a 50-acre partly-leased farm containing 3,500 mango trees. “The peak season is usually from 20 April-20 May, hence the lockdown is causing us maximum damage.”
Maharashtra is not the largest producer of mangoes in India, but it holds the GI tag — identifying its produce as the most authentic — for the alphonso. Maharashtra is the largest mango exporting state in the country, and accounts for over 80 per cent of the total exports.
The challenges created by the pandemic have also created a difficult situation for another key produce of the state, grapes, of which Maharashtra is the largest producer in India. The consequence is a direct impact on the grape-wine industry, of which Maharashtra is the undisputed leader in India.
A series of knocks
If mango is the king of fruits, alphonso is widely touted as the king of mangoes, famed for its rich pulp and fragrance that have earned it a devoted following around the world.
Maharashtra’s mango market, including the alphonso, garners an estimated annual income of at least Rs 250-300 crore for farmers. According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), India exported 46,510.27 MT (metric tonnes) of fresh mangoes, worth Rs 406.45 crore, in 2018-19.
Speaking to ThePrint, many farmers said they had taken heavy loans for this year’s harvest, to make up for the losses in 2020. Two consecutive years of loss, they added, will destroy them.
Satish Ugale, an alphonso farmer with an orchard of 120 trees in Ratnagiri, said, “Our profit margin is almost negligible this year as costing has surged to Rs 2,000-2,500/box and the selling prices have almost been the same due to the lockdown. The input cost has increased as labour cost per box has gone up by Rs 10-20, box prices have increased to Rs 100 from Rs 90, the cost of filling hay has increased to Rs 100 from Rs 70. Labour prices have increased to Rs 400 from Rs 300 for 8 hours. Pesticide and fuel price have increased by 10-20 per cent,” he added.
Farmers are also facing problems accessing crucial treatment for mangoes and certificates that are mandatory for export. So, even if the flight restrictions are lifted, they fear they won’t be able to resume sales to markets like West Asia, European Union, Japan, Australia, and the US.
Farmer Namrata Desai, who has leased a 76-acre farm spread across Devgad and Ratnagiri, said, “We export mangoes to the Indian traders abroad in Dubai, Qatar, and African countries. Alphonso is a delicate fruit. To survive for export, it needs various kinds of chemical processing and requisite certification.
“Every processing unit in our area is closed due to lockdown. We have to travel from our farm in Devgad to Ratnagiri or Sindhudurg district to get it processed. For further processing of mangoes, we have to go to Mumbai to get it packed at a certified and authorised government packhouse. For that, we need bulk quantity, which further raises the cost with transportation and other stuff,” she added.
“The flight suspension has further hindered our exports. Our orders come from Dubai, Qatar, African countries, Sweden and the Netherlands, from where the flights have shut down now.”
Dawood Seth, a mango farmer in Sindhudurg, said “many mandis that are crucial for the transaction of mangoes are partially closed, which has created a problem during peak season”.
“The export treatment is also not readily available as the treatment and certification facilities have shut down and we have to pay thrice the normal transportation cost to avail of them far away. The transportation prices have gone up to Rs 20,000-22,000/truck, hampering our business prospects,” he added.
Desai said the mango crop this year was already “badly damaged” by the unseasonal rainfall and cyclone last year, which resulted in lower production.
“We expected higher prices due to it, but because of the lockdown, we can’t reap the profits.”
Rajan Seth echoed her concern. “Every year, I used to sell at least 7,000-8,000 boxes of mangoes every year, but it will not even touch 3,000 boxes this year and might even remain at 2,500 boxes. Currently, the prices are at Rs 2,500-1,500/box, which used to be 6,000-7,000/box.”
Nitin Gawde of Vengurla, Sindhudurg, who owns 300 mango trees on a 50-60-acre farm, said he usually got 5,000-6,000 dozen mangoes from “alternately cultivating mangoes from half his trees every year”.
“This year, the harvest is just from 20-30 trees. A spell of heavy downpour in November withered away 50 per cent of the flowers. Normally, winter continues until late February, but this time, it was over soon so pea-sized mangoes fell due to the temperature rise, leading to a further dip in produce,” he added.
Gawde said the crisis triggered by the pandemic means people are “rushing to buy foodgrains such as rice, wheat, and pulses for their survival”.
“But no one wants to purchase mangoes as they are not necessary to survive. If these things hadn’t happened, we would have made a killing as the produce was less this year due to bad weather. Local markets are completely closed and we have nowhere to sell.”
Speaking to ThePrint, an official in the Maharashtra State Agriculture Marketing Board said they expect the situation to ease by June.
“The peak alphonso season sometimes stretches out to the first week of June and we expect the exports to pick up by then as flights will resume with a decline in Covid cases,” the official added, not willing to be named.
“In the meanwhile, we are trying to provide services of treatment and certification of mangoes at the doorstep of farmers by aggregating their produce at their door and then sending them to our facilities for further processing,” the official said. “We have also requested the Centre to engage the Kisan Rail service (an initiative to ensure the quick transportation of perishable goods) to ensure fast movement of mangoes across domestic markets in order to insulate farmers from a complete price crash.”
A challenge for grapes
The state’s grape crop faces its own challenges.
Grape farmers, especially those who harvest the produce for wineries, say wine producers are still struggling to clear last year’s stock. As a result, they add, the wineries have been reluctant to procure crops from them this year.
Vikram Sonwane, a third-generation grape farmer based at Khedgaon in Nashik, said, “Last year, only our table grape prices crashed drastically due to the lockdown. However, this year, both table grapes and wine grapes are causing losses for us. Last year, the grape crops for wineries were purchased at the pre-agreed price for crushing as they processed and bottled them. However, there was no consumption of the wine during the lockdown and the stock has carried forward to this year.
“Only 25 per cent of wine sales happened last year against the production. Due to such huge stockpiles, wineries have made cutthroat rules for grape procurement this year, such as restrictions on tonnage, stringent quality checks and all, so farmers couldn’t sell most of their grape crop this year.”
Meanwhile, Sonwane added, “the cost of cultivation has increased even though last year we had to pay for labour despite the lockdown”.
“Bank loans, electricity bills, and fuel prices keep mounting. However, the sale and consecutive profits decline. We are surviving on end-to-end farming this year. Wine grapes costing goes to Rs 1 lakh-1.4 lakh/acre and this is increasing every year. This year, I’m staring at 60 per cent losses.”
According to APEDA, from December to March, India exported 83,927 metric tonnes of grapes, compared to 92,342 metric tonnes in the corresponding period in the previous year. Many major grape exporters say they are struggling to survive amid the pandemic, let alone turning profits.
Amol Manikrao Patil, an exporter of grapes who also cultivates the fruit on a 30-acre farm in Dindori, Nashik, said, “Last year also, there were severe losses due to closure of transport abroad. This year, too, yield has increased by 30-40 per cent, which has led to low prices, further aggravated by a dip in demand this year. The retail prices in April have dipped to Rs 30-40/kg, which is usually Rs 50-60/kg. Export pre-Covid prices were at Rs 70-90/kg whereas it has now gone to Rs 35-40/kg.”
According to Patil, the “crash in domestic sales as well as exports last year led a lot of grape farmers to make raisins from their produce”. “Usually, one truck of grapes is converted into raisins, but, last year, 20-30 trucks of grapes were made into raisins.”
Even so, he said, it has “not protected grape farmers from losses as the raisins stock from last year is still selling now”.
“The raisins are getting sold at the usual wholesale rate of Rs 25-30/kg to 50-60/kg, whereas pre-Covid prices of raisins were Rs 100-150/kg. One kg of raisins comes from 3-4 kg of grapes, after it’s sundried for 10-15 days.”
Many other fruit farmers have also tried to cut their losses by improvising in sales but to no avail.
Said Nitin Gawde, “To counter the demand dip after last year’s lockdown, I improvised by selling my alphonso mango on private platforms that provide them directly to the customers without any intermediaries. However, in these private markets, we have to hassle many customers with follow-up for payment but the demand remains there despite lockdown. Also, these domestic customers don’t pay up to the mark as compared to traders who used to export our produce.”
“We have also shifted to increase traditional red rice cultivation in our farms, which was rare till now, but it only ensures our survival, not profit, as it is from alphonso,” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)