Sudeesh K. (32) quit his software job with a Bengaluru-based multinational company to become a full-time farmer. He has joined his father Kandhasamy in their ancestral land in Jakeri, a sparsely populated village in Kelamangalam administrative block of Krishnagiri district. In two acres, they cultivate roses and carnations in two poly greenhouses under controlled conditions, using Israeli technology.
The neighboring farm belongs to Srinivasan, a general manager in a multinational software company. He drives down from Bengaluru on weekends to attend to his hi-tech rose farm. He plans to take the plunge and become a full-time farmer.
Across four administrative blocks in Krishnagiri District — Kelamangalam, Denkanikottai, Shoolagiri and Hosur — poly greenhouses and shade net structures are ubiquitous. Those that drive the hi-tech horticulture boom are young engineers, management professionals, employees from information technology (IT) sector and the like.
The trend negates the battle for survival of the average Indian farmer, and the children not seeming keen to pick up the mantle. According to the Annual Status of Education Report – 2017, released by the non-profit organization Pratham, just 1.2% children of farmers aspired to be a farmer.
In Krishnagiri district, the major cultivated area is rain-fed. Over the last few decades, the district witnessed a shift to horticulture, due to its climate and proximity to Bengaluru, the major market for horticultural crops. The undulating dry terrain from Rayakottai to Hosur has no perennial water source and is unsuitable for water-intensive crops.
Fruits like banana, sapota, aonla and guava, vegetables like brinjal, capsicum, and onion, spices like turmeric and pepper, and flower crops like rose, gerbera and carnations are cultivated in over 49,576 hectares.
Hi-tech horticulture’s beginnings in the area coincide with IT boom in Bengaluru, with the last five years witnessing phenomenal growth, aggressively pursued by sons of small and marginal farmers, besides first generation farmers.
Anamaiah Gowdu (33) quit his corporate job and returned to Chettipally, his native village, to modernize his ancestral farm. He grows colored capsicums.
“Liberal subsidies for poly greenhouses, shade net structures and micro irrigation along with technical and input support, has fuelled the growth of hi-tech farming,” Ganesh, assistant director, Directorate of Horticulture and Plantation Crops, Denkanikottai taluk, told VillageSquare.in. As part of the hi-tech system, farmers install rainwater-harvesting structures, for micro irrigation.
According to Satyendra Yadav of Indo-Israeli Agriculture Project’s (IIAP) Vegetable Cluster and IIAP Centre of Excellence (CoE), use of hi-tech green houses, naturally ventilated poly houses , anti-insect net houses, and walk-in tunnels significantly increase yield.
“The structures reduce use of pesticides and other inputs, prolongs harvest time from 3 to 9 months,” Yadav told VillageSquare.in. “As against an yield of 3.5 tons of cucumber per hectare in open cultivation, the yield under protected cultivation is 45 tons. The yield of capsicum in open cultivation is 12 tons per hectare while under IIAP technology it’s 72 tons.”
IIAP’s goals are to increase crop diversity, productivity and resource use efficiency. CoEs started under IIAP provide a platform for Israeli agro technology, knowledge transfer and training, focusing on nursery development, cultivation methods, irrigation and fertilizer management.
Crops cultivated in the open, under natural conditions, are more susceptible to sudden changes in temperature, humidity, light intensity and other conditions that affect quality and yield. The Israeli technology helps control them and the four vital elements for photosynthesis.
The poly green sheet filters ultraviolet and infrared rays, allowing radiation measuring 400 to 700 nano meters, under which photosynthesis happens. Micro irrigation system ensures the roots get required water, cutting water use by 90%. Carbon-di-oxide emitted by plants at night is retained inside the enclosure, boosting starch production.
“This is achieved by manipulating temperature, humidity, light intensity, ventilation, soil media, disease control, irrigation, fertigation and other agronomical practices throughout the season, irrespective of the natural conditions outside,” Arumugam. S, horticultural officer-in-charge of CoE, Thally, told VillageSquare.in. “This means farmers can get seven times more produce.”
The degree of sophistication of poly green and shade net houses varies from a simple naturally- ventilated poly house with polyethylene film covering, to highly sophisticated, fully automated drip and fogger systems, and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) lightings.
Putting up a naturally ventilated poly green house in one-acre costs about Rs 28 lakh. Under the National Horticulture Mission, farmers get a subsidy of Rs16.88 lakh for poly green and shade net structures in one acre. The drip irrigation system is also heavily subsidized.
Raising nurseries under controlled environment is catching up too. Farmers get Rs 14.2 lakh per acre for shade net nurseries. Drip irrigation subsidy is Rs1.13 lakh per hectare, plus Goods and Services Tax (GST), under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) scheme. Banks too offer loans because of high returns.
One acre of poly greenhouse cultivation fetches an annual income of Rs25 lakh per annum, as against Rs5 lakh in open cultivation. “The loan can be repaid in a year and the returns thereafter are profit for the farmer,” said Ganesh.
Subramani K. (32) of Chettipally village in Kelamangalam administrative block, had to discontinue his schooling and take up farming when his father passed away. “Cultivating groundnut and ragi in three acres under rain-fed conditions, I struggled to sustain,” Subramani told VillageSquare.in. But he broke the cycle growing green and colored capsicums in two poly green houses, each over one acre land.
Subramani sells capsicum at Rs 50/kilo at the farm gate. Buyers from Bengaluru pick the produce every day, pack them and transport to various markets across the country. In one acre poly greenhouse 14,000 plants can be grown, each costing Rs8.5 including seed cost and wage. Three months after planting, capsicum is harvested nine months a year at a rate of 60 tons per acre.
In the case of roses, 28,000 to 32,000 plants can be raised in an acre. The cost of planting is Rs 12 to Rs 15. Six months after planting, one or two flowers can be plucked from every plant on alternate days. The market price of roses swing between Rs 100 to Rs 200 per bunch of 20 flowers.
“The spectacular results and returns are not coming easy,” Srinivasan told VillageSquare.in. “In naturally ventilated houses, increase in outside temperature entails semi-manual washing of plants to keep them cool.”
Each rose bud has to be capped with synthetic mesh to control its size. Rose stems ready for harvest during sunny days have to be precooled. Soil and water need to be tested regularly. According to Sudeesh one cannot succeed in hi-tech farming without personal attention. “We keep updating ourselves with new techniques and news about market conditions,” said Srinivasan.
Protected cultivation does not guarantee pest-free environment. The climate inside these structures is conducive for pests like thrips, mites and leaf minor. Farmers spend considerable time spraying pesticides. “Nets and improvised door systems reduce pest infiltration,” said Arumugam.
Worth the risks
Subramani recalled his childhood days, when they could hardly buy two sets of clothes a year. He could not afford to repair the house. “Today I have two motorcycles and a car, and I have rebuilt our house,” he said.
About 2,000 acres are under hi-tech cultivation in Krishnagiri district. In Chettipally, there are 200 poly green houses, and new ones are coming up.
Farmers like Sudeesh double up as fabricators and consultants. Farmers are diversifying into other crops like radish, double beans, cauliflower, cabbage and carrot. Villagers are leveling dry and rocky lands to put up poly green and shade net houses, as the ensuing prosperity seems worth the risks.
George Rajashekaran is a journalist based at Salem, Tamil Nadu. Views are personal.