From far-off Taiwan, the name of musk melon ‘Muskaan’ has not been lost in translation. And like its name, it brings a smile on the face of 43-year-old Parduman Singh every time he talks about it. As he guides his men removing weeds from 16 acres of musk melons growing in long rows enveloped under mulch sheet and paddy straw, Parduman does not have to worry like many Punjab farmers if there will be enough rain for water-guzzling paddy in June-July. His crop of ‘Muskaan’ and ‘Bobby’, another Taiwan variety he grows, will be ready for harvest as early as April-May and unlike the local musk melon varieties, has a longer shelf life and fetches a higher price.
Till the musk melons arrive, what is already in full bloom on another eight acres of Parduman’s farm at Rukali Mangarh village in Rupnagar district are lush-red strawberries. The variety has come from California, and like the musk melons, made its way to Punjab through suppliers based in Pune (Maharashtra). Just a few farmers are growing California strawberries in Punjab and many more may do so as the market grows, he says.
The economics of the strawberry musk melon crop cycle were lucrative enough for Parduman’s 27-year-old nephew Raspinder Singh, an economics graduate, to join him. And he now helps his uncle market the produce to Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar, and through commission agents, to other states.
“The strawberries fetch between Rs 200 and Rs 400 for a 2-kg box of eight packets. The prices shoot up in the winter months till the soaring temperatures bring both the shelf life and the prices down,” says Parduman. The demand for strawberry remains high till juicy mangoes, litchis and melons arrive in the markets, so they now also plant some late varieties that can be harvested till the onset of summer. The strawberry season — the sowing of the early varieties starts in mid-October and is harvested by December and the late varieties can be harvested till May — brings in a sumptuous profit of Rs 3-4 lakh an acre!
Catering to a niche market, though the strawberries are pricier than the musk melons, the latter, too, bring a profit of Rs 1-1.5 lakh an acre. “The input cost, including labour, land contract price, and seeds, for musk melons is ` 1 lakh an acre. They fetch up to Rs 2-2.5 lakh an acre. The shelf life of local musk melon varieties is just a few days; if damaged by rain, they can also cause food poisoning. But ‘Muskaan’ and ‘Bobby’ can be stored for up to 20 days,” he adds.
With not enough land to divide among Parduman and his two brothers, the family began their diversification story by moving away from paddy to mushrooms. They also grew bell peppers, cucumber, potatoes and tomatoes. When Punjab’s own strawberry started arriving in the market, they left mushrooms too. Though the Punjab horticulture department and DD kisan channel were of great help, they got the strawberry farming right through a lot of enterprise and a little help from the internet.
“Earlier, the strawberry variety we were growing did not give fruit of good quality and taste. We were facing problems marketing the crop. Also, the consumption of the fruit was low. Three years back, we searched on the Net for better varieties and found suppliers of the California variety in Pune. Since then, there has been no looking back. The nearby hawa-pani — green fields and Neelon canal — lends a rich taste and colour to the strawberries. They are not just lush-red and shiny but also taste the best. We sell them at a better price than those grown in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand,” says Parduman. The returns have been equally sweet and the brothers are adding more acres to strawberry and melons, year after year. The fruits now grow on 24 acres, eight of their own and the rest on contract.
Their company, PM Agrotech Ltd, is now into big business, with its own pick-up vans transporting strawberries and musk melons, packed in boxes bearing the company’s name, to commission agents.
NOT WITHOUT A HARD DAY’S WORK
But it has not come without a hard day’s work. Strawberries cannot withstand extreme heat and cold. To save them from dip in temperatures during Punjab’s frosty winter nights, they have to be meticulously covered with mulch sheets. The weeds have to be removed every day and the crop also has to be saved from fungus in the soil through layer of paddy straw. Also, during winter months, the shelf life of strawberries is three days. It goes down to just one day after February. So, their timely marketing becomes a daily challenge. But they intend to grow more strawberries and melons.
Using the poly- house on their farms for cucumber and bell peppers, Parduman and Raspinder are now experimenting with preparing the nursery of musk melons in the polyhouse through hydroponic technique (farming without soil, using minerals such as cocopit and vermicompost) and later replicate it on their open farms. They also plan to bring a Taiwanese watermelon variety into Punjab markets this year.
A BETTER LIFE
The strawberries have brought fame to Rukali Mangarh village. The brothers still live together in a big house next to their farm, but much has changed in the past few years. The rooms have air-conditioners and LCD television sets. From just one Maruti car, they now have a Maruti Swift and two Mahindra Boleros. Parduman’s son is studying in Canada and his daughter is pursuing an engineering course.
“It has also helped us know more people, from officers in the horticulture department to high-end customers, as strawberries are in high demand during weddings and the festival season,” says Raspinder. Lying enveloped under paddy straw on Punjab farms, these exotic fruits are reaping a harvest of hope for farmers such as Parduman and Raspinder beyond paddy. They still grow paddy on a few acres, but only to fill in between the strawberry-musk melon cycle. For those still growing it, the message is: straw is not a waste till it’s wasted.
TOMORROW: Not cattle class anymore