Nature continues to be unkind to the farmers of Maharashtra. After three successive years of hailstorms and drought, this year a good rainfall brought them some hope for their kharif crop. But the parting kick of the retreating monsoon flooded their villages and farms and destroyed much of their produce. Now the unprecedented chill spreading across the state too early this season is fast destroying the hope of one section of farmers in Nashik—the grape growers.
Last week, grape producers from across the district had submitted a memorandum to Union roads and transport minister Nitin Gadkari to seek his intervention with the government and the Nashik District Central Co-operative Bank (NDCC) for extension of crop loans to one lakh farmers who had been left without funds at all. The NDCC has disbursed Rs 1740 crore worth of loans to farmers but fell short of funds following the government’s failure to make good the subsidy.
Nearly 75% of the grapes grown in Nashik, which is India’s grape county, finds its way to markets in Europe, making for about 60% of the total exports from India.
This is the month when farmers have to prune the vines to help the clusters to grow in proper proportion and without loans from the NDCC they do not have enough funds for these operations including for labour charges and pesticides. But while this man-made hurdle can be overcome, what is now worrying farmers majorly is the dipping mercury in the district which, on Monday was at 8.6 degree Celsius, the coldest after Ahmednagar at seven degrees Celcius.
Says Dinkarnath Aher, a farmer who has been in the business since 1985 with 25 acres of grape farms stretched across the Niphad tehsil, which is the main grape growing area in the country: “We cannot afford to have the temperature drop so suddenly. It damages the berries on the cluster which crack and this renders them useless for export. Moreover, if the temperature drops below eight degrees celsius, there is danger of powder mildew and other fungi taking over the crop which will lead to complete destruction of the produce which will not be fit for even the domestic market.”
Farmers at the moment are doing their best to save their crop by covering the vines in jute sacks and blankets, burning dead leaves beneath the vines to provide them warmth or using warm water to sprinkle the crop in the hope it will take away the chill. “But these are temporary remedial measures.”
The weather observatory has forecast further dips in temperature and that is worrying farmers about the future of their crops which will be ready to harvest in a month. But according to Jagannath Khapre, president of the Grape Exporters’ Association of India, the increasing frost in the air can cause injury to the berries and also slow down the metabolism of the vine. “The grape crop is generally harvested in 120 days. But the increasing cold slows down the metabolism and it can take about 160 days to harvest the crop, provided it has not been damaged by the chill.’’ Anything further than five degrees Celsius can condemn the entire crop to destruction, he adds.
Already the excess rainfall in some areas has left farmers with the prospect of less yields across the two lakh acres in the Banganga valley in Niphad tehsil which is all given over to the crop. Any further vagaries of weather would condemn them to virtually no yields at all, adds Aher.
Maharashtra is India’s largest grape producer and nearly 80% of the produce comes from Niphad in Nashik district though Pune and Solapur also grow some quantities of grape as does Bangalore in Karnataka. Normally such severe chill does not set in so early in the grape season and much of the clusters are fully grown before temperatures dip below 10 degrees Celsius. This year, however, the mercury has been falling steadily since Diwali. Farmers are left with little but to pray to the weather and sun god to save their crop.