Nek Singh’s fields here stand out in a Punjab where agriculture is waiting to be spiced up. Driving from the state capital of Chandigarh in February, when after 90 minutes, the constant view of lush wheat fields and mustard in bloom changes to acres of neat rows of ready-to-be-transplanted chilli saplings, it’s a different state.
Far from the depressed average Punjabi tiller whose profession is becoming unviable, the 70-year-old from Khokh village has a profitable agriculture business and supportive sons to help him take it further. When agriculture is in crisis all over the state, he is among its select successful farmers who even pay income tax. From a normal farmer struggling to survive and being a ticket checker in Pepsu Road Transport Corporation for about 15 days, he has changed his luck by hard work, enterprise, and finding a hot crop.
About 50 years ago, unable to continue his education beyond Class X, Nek Singh joined his three brothers in tilling his family’s 13 acres. By 1965, when Green Revolution was catching up in the state, then 20-something Nek Singh decided to install a tube-well on his farm. With Rs 3,500 loan, he bought a Kirloskar engine, which he assembled on his own. “It was a huge investment in those days,” said the progressive farmer. One of his elder brothers, who stays with him, was not as enterprising. While they got a similar share of ancestral land in the 1960s, only Nek Singh was able to make it count.
Going by the government mandate, he started cultivating wheat and paddy. The minimum support price (MSP) assured him steady income for the family. “But I was not satisfied. I wanted to earn more. By 1980s, I had started meeting scientists and agricultural experts,” said the man who still wears a woollen jacket over white kurta-pyjama, a sign that he has not forgotten his old days. Being in touch with scientists allowed Nek Singh to help Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) with cotton-and-tomato testing. Growing tomato gave him good income from 1988 to 2000. “Chilli came into picture in 1991, and since then there is no looking back,” he told HT, adding: “My business is growing each year.”
This year, he has raised chilli saplings over 3.5 acres towards the plan to cover 10 acres. Earning a couple of lakh rupees from each acre under chilli every kharif season, Nek Singh has expanded his inherited 4-acre farm to 65 acres to be among the most prosperous farmers of the state. He doesn’t grow wheat, only high-income potato and sunflower in the rabi season and chilli and basmati in kharif.
Credit to experts
Carrying out trials on behalf of the PAU and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in 1991, Nek Singh discovered the magic of chilli and scientists from the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR), Bengaluru, helped him understand it.
“I knew scientists from across the country, which gave me to opportunity to participate in trials on the CH-1 variety of chilli. Year after year, I kept improving the variety, using the skills gained from experts. Most of the other chilli farmers don’t know how to prepare nursery,” said the entrepreneur from Nabha.
Lately, he has developed a poly-house to create favourable conditions for his saplings, famous in the chilli belt of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab. It has taken him years to master the techniques of maintaining a hybrid chilli variety. “In creating a cross breed, wind direction is the most important factor. The hybrid sapling should be placed between two rows of other crop, at right angle to the wind direction,” said Nek Singh, revealing the trick that the IARI scientists passed on to him.
The bigger secret to his success, however, is “hard work” that he put in testing several crops and developing own variety. He is optimistic of good results.
For sons, Nabha is US
For Nek Singh’s two sons, working on their farm is like being employed in a foreign dream destination. “Our business is so lucrative and modern that we don’t have the urge to settle abroad,” said Jaswant Singh (43), farmer’s elder son and a graduate in arts. Hwe manages labour and the farm’s day-to-day affairs.
His younger brother, Kulwant Singh (40), a graduate in computer applications from Thapar University, Patiala, looks after the logistics of supplying the saplings to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Ready to deliver his first consignment of the season in Moradabad, he said while counting the saplings in the trays that he enjoys his work. “I earn more than many of my friends in foreign countries. Most important is being with my brother and learning something new every day from our father,” said Kulwant, who drives a Mahindra Bolero jeep, which is also his delivery vehicle.
“It’s going to be very busy month ahead, as chilly transplantation has started,” adds Kulwant, who after finishing his studies in computers wanted to go to the US. “Then I worked for a week with Papaji and changed my decision. Hun saadda Amrika ethey hee hai (now our America is here),” said a beaming farmer.
Huge job scope
Nek Singh hires women of poor families from the area and pays them Rs 40 an hour to do labour on his farm. He employs nearly 100 women in a year to look after the nursery, picking chilli, and help with other activities. “These poor women make about Rs 10,000 a month, and it gives me immense satisfaction to see them able to earn,” said the employer.
The work environment is home-like. He sells his October harvest at the Sanour chilli market of Punjab in Patiala district, about 20 kilometres from home. His farm is strikingly neatly kept. A one-room structure on it serves as his kitchen, bathroom, and work area. Even though his village house is only at a walking distance, he likes being hands-on. The undisputed chilli king of the state avoids spicy food. He served the HT team tea and biscuits. Asked why he grows chilli then, he said: “Why not, it’s hot. Its demand will never go down.”
1-acre nursery grows saplings for 285 acres
Returns from saplings Rs 4,500 to 6,000 per acre
Net earnings from saplings Rs 26 to Rs 50 lakh a year
· Income per acre from saplings Rs 7.5 to 14 lakh
Growing season 5 months (November to March)
Input cost (labour, logistics, infrastructure, seeds for saplings) 2.5 lakh per acre
Labour charges Rs 40 per hour
1 acre grows 180 to 220 quintal green chilli, 200-quintal red chilli, subsequently
Green chilli price Rs 12 to 25 a kilogram
Gross income Rs 6 lakh per acre
Net income (after deducting input cost) Rs 5 lakh per acre
Cost of land lease Rs 20,000 to 40,000 per acre (excluded from net income)
Tomorrow: Glad over gladiolus