Dragon fruit cultivation takes off in North Bengal
- A section of farmers in North Bengal is experimenting with cultivation of dragon fruit for better income generation prospects.
- The production of dragon fruit began in India as a hobby in the 1990s, but it was limited to home gardens.
- Growing dragon fruit appears to be a good alternative for farmers in North Bengal who lack adequate irrigation facilities. An investment is first necessary to create support structures for the plant which is a climbing plant.
Abha Toppo resides in the village of Hatighisa, in the district of Darjeeling, North Bengal, about 20 kilometers from the town of Siliguri, gateway to northeast India. Her village is a few meters from the block of Naxalbari which had attracted worldwide attention for the armed peasant revolt of 1967. The 45-year-old woman had worked as a tea-picker in a tea garden for more than two short decades. after her marriage in 1995. She earned Rs. 170 per day (around Rs. 5000 per month) as a salary from the tea garden. But now her income often exceeds Rs. 100,000 or more per month thanks to dragon fruit or strawberry pear – a pink fruit with green scales on the outside and white flesh with black seeds on the inside.
It all started in 2013 when Toppo attended an agriculture workshop at the University of North Bengal. “Scientists have advised us on the importance of dragon fruit and higher yields. I only bought four saplings thinking about their usefulness and planted them on my land, ”she said. “But to my surprise, the flowers bloomed and the fruit came out over the next 18 months. That was delicious. I had around 5 kg of fruit which I sold at around Rs. 400 per kg. It was a nice profit compared to my tea garden salary, ”Toppo told Mongabay-India.
Today, Toppo owns over 123 dragon fruit plants and sells the fruit and stem cuttings which are used as saplings for the fruit. According to regional agricultural experts, she is the first woman to start cultivating dragon fruit in West Bengal. Like Toppo, more than 2,000 Bengal farmers have turned to growing dragon fruit in recent years to generate income. Reports of the plant’s immunity-boosting ability have increased its demand during the pandemic.
Scientifically known as Hylocereus undatus, the dragon fruit is cultivated in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam.
Dragon fruit sprouted in home gardens, but gradually spread
According to G. Karunakaran, senior scientist at the Indian Horticultural Research Institute (ICAR-IIHR), dragon fruit production started in India as a hobby in the 1990s, but it was limited to home gardens. “It was not done on a large scale at the time and was limited to gardening as people feared its growth because it is a cactus. It was started on a large scale by scientists at the University of North Bengal. in 2013 after educating farmers about its potential and income opportunities, ”Karunakaran told Mongabay-India.
“During online research, I came across dragon fruit grown by scientists at the Agricultural University of Bangladesh (BAU). I have read about its rich properties and higher yields. It seemed like a good alternative for farmers in North Bengal who face a lack of proper irrigation facilities, ”said Amrendra Kumar Pandey, technical manager of the Floriculture and Agri-Food Management Center (COFAM) of the University of North Bengal which pioneered the cultivation of dragon fruit in the state.
“We bought around 150 young BAU seedlings and distributed them to farmers and we also planted some on our campus. We were skeptical of its growth, but the results have been overwhelming. The farmers got a good price. We estimate that annual production has increased to around 600 metric tonnes from 500 kg in 2014, ”he said.
“We started out with almost an acre of land scattered across different blocks and farming areas in North Bengal. After seven to eight years, its cultivated area has grown to around 200 acres in different parts of North Bengal, from small farmers to progressive farmers, ”Pandey added.
Ranadhir Chakraborty, professor and project coordinator at COFAM, says the fruit can grow in extreme temperatures and poor soils, but it is best suited to tropical climates. “Dragon fruit is a species of cactus that does not require a lot of water and a specific soil quality, but the soil pH should be between 5.5 and 6.5 (slightly acidic). It also grows well in desert conditions in Mexico. Organic fertilizers are used for cultivation without any pesticides as the land is still not polluted by industries in North Bengal. It started on a small scale, but has grown into a stable horticultural crop in North Bengal, ”said Chakraborty.
“The gestation period is around 16 to 18 months. The fruit contains important antioxidants like flavonoids, phenolic acid and betacyanin and is very delicious. In addition, the fruit is rich in fiber and promotes the growth of healthy intestinal microflora. The branches of the trees are cut and used as saplings for further growth. It does not need a regular supply of water except during severe summers. Food is harvested from May to October. It’s a high-value crop with a low death rate, ”he said.
Prabha Tirkey Chacko, 50, a farmer who resides in the village of Hansquea near Badgodra Airport in North Bengal says she started cultivating in 2016 and owns 400 dragon fruit plants. 450 Rs per kg in 2018. I re-planted last year because COVID-19 has resulted in increased demand for the fruit. I am waiting for the return but buyers have already started to invade my house. The pandemic has increased its demand due to the immunity-boosting power. “
Expensive to begin with
Farmers, however, recognize that there is an initial cost involved in growing the plant as it is a climbing plant and needs the support of a pole. A cement post should be erected to support the plant. Four factories can be supported on a single cement pole which costs around Rs. 200-250. “It’s better to start with a small plot of land and expand once the income starts to flow,” suggested Pavitra Roy, 37, a farmer from Choagari village in the Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal.
“I used to grow vegetables but suffered losses. I started growing dragon fruit with 200 saplings in 2018 on just five decimal places (0.05 acres) of land and made a profit of around Rs. 40,000 last year. I have now planted 1200 saplings in an area of 35 decimal places (0.35 acres) anticipating the benefits. Demand is very high locally and also in the northeast during the pandemic which makes supply difficult in other parts of the country. But the fruit was being shipped to central and northern states in India before COVID-19, ”Roy said.
The farmers said the fruits had a better outlook and a bright future only if the government stepped in and offered them a subsidy. They say the subsidies on concrete poles, trellises, drip irrigation and planting material will help smallholder farmers come forward and get started in growing the plant because the initial investments in planting structures. support are quite high, which is why most poor farmers do not.
Banner image: Prabha Tirkey Chacko, a progressive farmer who harvests the fruits of growing dragon fruit in her field. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.