February 25, 2023 09:04 pm | Updated February 26, 2023 08:26 am IST – BHUBANESWAR
The rugged Sunabeda plateau, 3,000 feet above sea level, along the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border, has always been difficult terrain to traverse, but for Yuvraj Chhatria, it is just a part of his journey. The 30-km ride from the top of the plateau to the plains in the Nuapada district of Odisha and the subsequent gruelling 550-km bus journey down bumpy roads to Bhubaneswar, located near the coast, would leave anyone exhausted.
Despite the physical demands of this journey, Mr. Chhatria, a member of the Chuktia Bhunjia tribe, one of the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), has a smile on his face. He has brought with him a fresh harvest of strawberries, and the fruit is selling out. He counts his cash in hand – at ₹37,500 for 1.5 quintals, this is the highest single-day profit he has ever made. He hopes to witness another bumper sale over the next two days at the Adivasi Mela 2023.
The strawberry harvest has triggered a celebration in the houses of 10 farmers who live in one of the 56 villages in the tropical deciduous forest of the Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary. The farmers, who from April to October plant paddy, were initiated into strawberry cultivation in November 2022.
“I had never heard about strawberries before. The government officers persuaded us to take up this new kind of farming, and we went for it. The government supplied saplings and gave us financial assistance to dig a borewell,” says Mr. Chhatria, adding that each family has been given 10 acres, and 20,000 saplings planted on each acre. The horticulture department was roped in for mulching and drip irrigation. Farmers took loans from women’s self-help groups (SHGs) to fund the labour component. Mr. Chhatria took a loan of ₹2 lakh.
He and his father have grown the fruit on 2.5 acres of land, earning ₹4.2 lakh to date. They hope it will touch ₹9 lakh by March end. This is an unexpected return from any crop in the region that sends a very high percentage of migrant labours to other States.
Most people in Sunabeda are from the Chuktia Bhunjia tribe, one of 13 PVTGs found in Odisha. They were given the requisite training by the Nuapada district administration and the Chuktia Bhunjia Development Agency (CBDA), established in 1994-95 by the State government to work for the development of the tribe, especially in livelihood programmes.
“A CBDA team had gone to Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, which accounts for 80% of India’s strawberry production. We found that the altitude and climate there are similar to that of Sunabeda. In fact, the soil quality of Sunabeda is better,” says CBDA Special Officer Himansu Mohapatra, who was a part of the group. He adds that the saplings provided were from Mahabaleshwar. In winter, the maximum daytime temperature of Sunabeda remains at around 25 degree Celsius and at night it drops to 10 degree Celsius, making it just right for strawberry cultivation.
“Fruits have been harvested and marketed within 40 days. It is heartening that the strawberry plants have continuous fruiting. There are 10 to 15 fruits in different stages and shapes on one plant,” says Mr. Mohapatra.
Farmers Kaliram Suanr and his wife, Gangabai, are able to pick more than 45 kg of strawberries daily. Women work the land and tend to the plants, and are involved from irrigation to harvest. “In mid-December 2022, when the first strawberry turned red, we were delighted. We first offered it to our deity Maa Sunadei,” says Ms. Suanr, who starts her day at 5 a.m. picking strawberries, before she gets into housework after 10 a.m. Mr. Suanr then takes the harvest to market.
This is not the first time strawberry farming has been experimented with in Odisha. The practice had a fair bit of success when it was introduced in 2021 in the Kotia gram panchayat in the southern Koraput district, a part of the Eastern Ghats, situated at a similar altitude to Sunabeda, and with a similar climate. The area, the jurisdiction of which is claimed by both the Odisha and Andhra Pradesh governments, has seen a huge inflow of government funds over the last four years. Now, the cultivation has spread to 20 acres with seven women’s SHGs involved.
“Farmers have started to develop strawberry saplings. The initial investment in land development had been made. The profit is likely to swell next season,” said Kashi Prasad Nayak, district programme coordinator with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, Koraput.
In Daringbadi of Kandhamal district, again at a similar altitude, a farmer was persuaded to take up strawberry farming. Kailash Dandapat, who works with Jagruti, a not-for-profit organisation in the environment, food, and farming space, says, “The exotic fruit was introduced in Daringbadi in two acres of land in the winter of 2022. As the place attracts tourists from all over the State and outside during this time, the strawberries found their customers easily. From the two acres, the cultivator has already earned a net profit of ₹1 lakh,” he says.
The euphoria is tinged with doubt though. Mr. Dandapat predicts that strawberries will get wider acceptance among tribal farmers, but is worried about the lack of robust marketing linkages, which could puncture ballooning hopes in the long run.
This is echoed by the farmers. “As a PVTG, our exposure to the outer world is limited compared to other communities. We jumped into growing strawberries after being motivated by government officials. But after its harvest, we find it difficult to market,” says Biju Jhankar, a farmer in Sanbaheli village of Sunabeda, admitting that returns on the crop were higher than any other farm product they have sold so far. Tribals also tap honey from the forest to sell in the market.
The CBDA special officer said the government was making an effort to build market linkages with big grocery store chains operating in the State. The government is also expecting massive expansion of strawberry farming in districts such as Gajapati, Malkangiri, Rayagada, and Kalahandi, where there are similar weather conditions.