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In a pickle: The rise and decline of Karnataka’s massive global gherkin industry

In a pickle: The rise and decline of Karnataka’s massive global gherkin industry

Jan 17, 2019 06:42:15 PM (IST)

In a pickle: The rise and decline of Karnataka’s massive global gherkin industry-1

In the early 2000s, gherkin cultivation was at its peak and the fruit was exported to countries around the world. But with consecutive crop failure and lack of support, farmers are now turning their backs on the once-golden fruit.

Withered crops and barren fields dot Thimmapur village in Karnataka's Ranebennur. Four disgruntled farmers sit in a field; their faces etched with worry. The district is among the largest cultivators of gherkins in India, yet the farmers looked doubtful when asked about the fruit. "What? You don't cultivate jerkins. You buy them in the store," says 34-year-old Nilappa Hadinavar.

After a convoluted conversation about the characteristics of gherkins, Nilappa's eyes lit up with realisation. "Why could you not say sanna southe plant (tiny cucumber) ? Yes, we do grow those here but we don't want to anymore," he says.

Hundreds of farmers in the region, including Nilappa, are cultivators of gherkins, a kind of small cucumber grown exclusively for export. Cultivated across 20 districts in Karnataka, these gherkins have ended up in restaurants and homes across Russia, the United States and several European countries. But in recent years, the once valuable gherkin has fallen from grace.

Walking across his six-acre plot, Nilappa speaks of how tiring and gruelling life has become in the last four years. Consecutive crop failures as a result of unpredictable rains, dry borewells, pests and insufficient support from factories have left farmers distraught and riddled with debt -- a turnaround from 12 years ago when farmers like Nilappa believed gherkins would lead to a better future.

The magical fruit
Nilappa was 22 years old when the gherkin first came into his life. "I can still remember that day. My friend Barmappa and I were sitting outside the tea stall near the bus stop and a man got off the bus. He approached us and asked if he could talk to farmers in our village. His name is Seppy. I had never heard of that name before. He told us about this magical fruit which could grow within a month's time and that it would make us richer than ever," he said.

Nilappa was starstruck. He felt it was a sign from Mother Earth, to whom he was ardently devoted. Seppy worked for Neo Foods, a gherkin producer, and most of the farmers in Thimmapur agreed to cultivate the fruit for export. “I knew it was fated. I was going all the way to cultivate this crop. He called it "southe plant" (cucumber plant) and told us that it was the crop of the future.”

The “angel” crop
In the 1990s, as Bengaluru witnessed the IT boom, another important phenomenon took place in rural Karnataka. With the developed countries looking to outsource labour to countries like India, Karnataka became a hub for gherkin cultivation.

Gherkins aren’t terribly popular in India, but in Europe and North America, they’re most commonly pickled and eaten as a condiment in burgers and sandwiches, especially at fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway. Though it wasn’t going to be consumed in the state, Karnataka became an ideal place for the mass production of gherkins, mainly because of its ideal soil type and desirable temperature range.

The early 2000s saw Nilappa and many other Ranebennur farmers reaping huge profits from gherkins, so much so that they began cultivating it thrice a year. Unlike most farming tragedies, Nilappa and his friends did not face the problem of drought, as the rich Tungabadhra River irrigated their lands and ensured the crops did not fail.

Large-scale export companies began recruiting agents, who in turn, would go to villages in hopes of convincing farmers to accept the profit-making angel crop. The idea of easy money was naturally appealing to the farmers. Packed seeds would arrived from abroad, and all the farmers had to do was cultivate the crops and send it to sorting centres in their villages. These centres would segregate gherkins into small, medium and large, and hand them over to factories, where they would be pickled, bottled and packed for export. It sounded that simple.

With the boom in gherkin growth, the industry was turning over Rs 1,200 crore in profit.

The Gherkin industry in Karnataka was massive, with exports reaching 2,25,000 metric tonnes per annum prior to 2014. The pickled gherkins were sold to USA, France, Germany, Australia, Spain, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Russia, China, Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia.

International tensions
That started to change in 2014, when the Russian aggression in Crimea resulted in US-imposed sanctions on the country. This led to the devaluation of the Rouble.

“It was the worst thing that happened to us,” says Madhusudhan, owner of Vishaal Foods, one of the oldest exporters of pickled gherkins. “We had huge crates of pickled gherkins waiting to be shipped out. But Russia did not buy it. We incurred massive losses that year. Our turnover that year was as less as Rs 180 crore. This was nothing compared to thousands of crores the industry was turning over in profits.”

Soon, Russia began encouraging local cultivation of crops and later turned to Vietnam, which was offering a much lower price than Indian exporters. Karnataka produces 60% of the gherkins cultivated in India. With the loss of income from Russia, the earnings dipped drastically.

Though they began exporting to other countries in Europe, which helped generate lost income, “we lost 40% of the earnings with Russia reducing its imports on gherkins,” Madhusudan says.

Consecutive crop failure
Along with the falling demand from importing countries, bad weather conditions were creating an adverse situation for gherkin growth. "It started going wrong in 2015. The weather has not been consistent. It would become cloudy too soon. If the crop has to grow properly, it needs lots of water and sunlight. The vagaries in the weather over the last few years has resulted in major crop loss,” says Birappa Goravar, a 34-year-old farmer from Thimmapur.

Barmappa, another farmer in Thimmapur, says in 2015, the crops grew well only between August and October (during the monsoon). Two of his crops that year failed due to pest infestation. However, he was able to salvage some of it.

“The following years too, although the crops did not completely fail, the yield was very low. But last year, when we planted the crop in December, not a single plant survived. It was like the plague had hit all the plants. They withered and died,” Birappa says.

In Ballari district’s Kottur area, Maabu Saheb’s gherkin farm is also in ruins. The gherkin vines have been reduced to stunted shrubs infected with pests. The wilted leaves of the plants sport a yellowish discolouration and the plant’s stems are withered.

“They call it Powdery Mildew. It’s like a virus infection in humans. If one plant is infected, it destroys each and every plant. All my crops have been destroyed this year because of this infection. Whenever the weather is humid and cloudy or when the temperature drops and the area is cold, these gherkin plants are susceptible to getting infected with this disease. There is not question of harvest. Only a handful of small gherkins are there now,” Maabu laments.

Currently there are more than 1 lakh small and marginal farmers who are engaged in the production of gherkins in Karnataka. The contract farmers were told they would receive technical support from the companies as well as guaranteed buy back of crop at pre-declared prices, they say.

But Maabu, who sells his gherkins to Neo Foods, says that the company did not provide him with pesticides. “Based on our contract we are supposed to get funds from the companies. The agent Madhukar told me that my crop was going to fail and it was pointless to save it,” Maabu alleges.

Nilappa’s and Birappa’s farms too were riddled with pests. But this time, it was Downey Mildew. Despite spraying pesticides multiple times a day, Nilappa and Birappa could not save their crops.

“Look at this. It looks like hay right? It’s the remnants of the gherkin crop I planted this year. This is what it is reduced to. When this kind of infection spreads, the crop cannot be save no matter the kind of pesticide we spray on it,” Nilappa says.

When borewells ran out of water
Unlike Ranebennur, which has the Tungabhadra river for irrigation, gherkin cultivators in Tumakuru, Chikkaballapura and Ballari have incurred severe losses since 2015 due to water shortages and dry borewells. Gurraladinne, Doddamaralli and Dibbur villages, where gherkins were cultivated on a large scale in the early 2000s, no longer cultivate the crop.

Speaking to TNM, Gangadhar, a 43-year-old farmer from Bagepalli in Chikkaballapura, owns a 4-acre plot, where he used to cultivate gherkins. Consecutive crop failure through a lack of adequate water for irrigation has left him helpless.

“So many farmers stopped cultivating gherkins in late 2017. The yield was not good and in many cases, the borewells were running dry. The plant needs a lot of water and we just don’t have that anymore. Cotton and sugarcane cultivation requires less water than gherkins do,” Gangadhar says.

Gangadhar spent Rs 3.3 lakh on digging up borewells in 2018 and not a single drop of water was found. “I have incurred so much of debt. In 2017 too I had spent money on a borewell. The water ran out very quickly. I am going to stop cultivating this plant. It’s brought me only misery. I have over 5 lakh in debt and each year it keeps rising. I did not sign up for this,” Gangadhar says.

Labour intensive crop and cycle of debt
Gherkins, Nilappa says, are like newborn babies. “You have to keep watching it all the time. You can’t afford to be out of site. Not even if your family member dies. Let me tell you why,” he says. “Gherkins grow very quickly. The bigger the gherkin, the lesser the price we get from factories.”

“Growing gherkins requires a lot of manual labour. We have to pay each worker Rs 280 per day. We have to pay them for three months when the crop is being cultivated. In a year, ideally, we plant the seeds thrice. Once between May and July, August to October and December to February. The costs are too high. In addition, we have to pay Rs 12,000 every trimester for pesticides,” Nilappa says.

Just like Nilappa, farmers across Ballari, Chikkaballapura, Haveri and Davangere have incurred massive debts over the last few years. In the last three years, Nilappa says he has invested over Rs 2 lakh on the crops, yet the yields have been low and the crops have repeatedly failed. He was forced to get a loan from a private money lender to pay off existing loans. The farmers’ only hope? The government’s proposed farm loan waiver.

“It’s been two months since we applied for the waiver. The bank manager tells me that they have not received any notification for waiving off the loans. We don’t know whether the government’s promise is true or not so I have no choice but to take another loan for the next farming season. I am thinking of cultivating cotton and that needs money,” Barmappa says.

Export companies step in
With farmers slowly opting out of gherkin cultivation, the export companies too are worried.

Vivek Nayak, president of the Karnataka Gherkin Exporters’ Association says, “We are trying to encourage the cultivation of exotic crops and in India. Karnataka still is the largest cultivator of gherkins but with farmers slowly pulling away, we have the task to ensure that the industry does not fail too.”

"We have spoken to the government officials and they are convinced that gherkins are an important crop for Karnataka. We have requested the government to help the gherkin farmers install drip irrigation systems to combat water shortage," Vivek Nayak says.

"The reasons for crop failure is because of weather, water and fly infestation. If we combat this, farmers will also generate more profits," he adds.

The gherkin factory owners, on their end, are trying to procure higher quality seeds for the farmers for this year's summer and monsoon crops, Vivek says. He is also relying on state universities like the University of Horticulture Sciences to educate farmers in Bagalkot on the cultivation of exotic crops.

“We are trying to encourage the cultivation of exotic crops and in India,” Vivek says. “Karnataka still is the largest cultivator of gherkins but with farmers slowly pulling away, we have the task to ensure that the industry does not fail too.”

Farmers like Maabu in Ballari are still hopeful that the gherkin will rise again. Though he has yet to see a good crop of gherkins since he started cultivating the fruit four years ago, he’s not ready to give up.“We believe that mother earth puts us through several trials and tribulations. But we will live and die as farmers,” Maabu says, “The soil is how we survive. We don’t have another option.”

“We believe that mother earth puts us through several trials and tribulations. But we will live and die as farmers,” Maabu says, “The soil is how we survive. We don’t have another option.”

News Courtesy: The News Minute

Article: Theja Ram