By Vishal Gulati
Paonta Sahib (Himachal Pradesh), March 14 (IANS) Sweet, heart-shaped red strawberries grown in hills around this Himachal Pradesh town are much in demand in north Indian cities and the growers are more happy this year as production has been optimal owing to congenial weather.
But they reiterate their demand that the government should import tissue culture plants to strengthen the ailing strawberry industry.
“This year the production of strawberries is good in the region compared to the last year and the farmers are getting good prices too,” prominent strawberry grower Sanjay Aggarwal, whose farm is located in Majra village, some 12 km from here in Sirmaur district, told IANS.
He said a majority of the fruit from here is heading to the Dehradun wholesale market in Uttarakhand from where it will go to Delhi and parts of Punjab and Haryana.
Strawberries are mainly grown in temperate areas of Sirmaur, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the total yield in the state.
Growers say the strawberries grown in the hills command greater demand than those in the plains, owing to high quality and longer shelf life.
At least 250 growers in the state are farming strawberries on less than 60 hectares.
The heart of this activity is along a 15 km stretch from Paonta Sahib to Dhaula Kuan in Sirmaur district where 35 farmers are involved in its cultivation.
Estimates with the state horticulture department say the total production in the Paonta Sahib area is expected to be around 85 tonnes, which is 25 tonnes more than in the last year.
The strawberries are also grown in Kullu, Una, Shimla and Kangra districts of the state.
Its production in the state was 500 tonnes last year and is expected this year to be 25 to 30 percent higher than the previous year. The output was 466 tonnes in 2010-11.
The strawberry crop starts arriving in the market in the end of February and its harvesting will continue till first week of May.
“We are harvesting 200 to 300 trays of strawberry every day. We are getting good prices this year,” said grower Lekh Raj.
He said the price of a tray — each 250 gm – ranges between Rs.80 and Rs.90 in the wholesale market. The early varieties fetched Rs.100 to Rs.120 per tray.
Traders in Dehradun say the demand is high owing to the onset of the wedding season.
“The demand for strawberries is quite high. On an average, we are daily supplying 1,000 to 1,500 trays to Delhi alone,” said trader Naveen Soni, adding the demand is also good in Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana.
The hill state is known for growing late varieties like ‘Sweet Charlie’ and ‘Chandler’ that command much demand in the fruit processing industry.
Aggarwal said the state horticulture department has invested in developing facilities like tissue culture labs but failed to introduce high-yield varieties that can be grown round the year and should provide imported tissue culture plants to strengthen the ailing industry.
Earlier, he said, there were 55 to 60 growers in the Paonta Sahib area alone. Now they have been reduced to 35. The farmers are opting other remunerative crops.
Studies conducted by state-run CSK Himachal Pradesh Krishi Vishvavidyalaya Hill Agricultural Research and Extension Centre in Dhaula Kuan said a majority of strawberry cultivators in the Paonta Sahib block had around 0.08 hectares for it.
Its cultivation encounters higher labour and capital requirements, besides risky nature of the crop owing to shorter shelf life of fruits and marketing problems.
Amit Kishore of Sainwala village first planted the juicy fruit in 1994 on his farm near here, with planting material imported from California.
State Horticulture Minister Vidya Stokes, who is a known apple grower in the country, informed the assembly last week that the state is providing 50 percent subsidy or the maximum Rs.140,000 per hectare to the strawberry growers for drip irrigation and mulching.
She said there is also a plan to start cultivation of white strawberry and expand the existing area.
Himachal Pradesh’s fruit economy is worth Rs.3,500 crore ($520 million) and while apples alone constitute 89 percent, strawberries, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, kiwis, olives, almonds and plums are the major commercial crops.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)