VIDEO | Blooming business, but for a few: The state of floriculture in Punjab
Patiala grows a secret in its backyard. Tucked away a few metres from the highway to Malerkotla and Samana are farms of three national-award winning floriculturists that offer a breathtaking view of acres and acres of flowers in all hues, shapes and sizes. As spring makes way for summer, Hindustan Times tracks three success stories to understand why blooms haven’t become many farmers’ business despite the potentialpunjab Updated: Mar 26, 2017 00:57 IST
A teacher’s vision and a student’s passion gave India its first floriculture farm in Punjab’s Patiala district in 1985. Thirty-two years on, Avtar Singh Dhindsa, 61, takes a deep breath as he sits in the gazebo overlooking rows and rows of flowers daintily dancing in the spring breeze in his 800-acre farm at Gabhrian village on the road to Malerkotla. “I’m happy I fulfilled my teacher Ajay Pal Singh’s dream of seeing flower seeds made in Punjab bloom across the world, particularly in Europe. Today, I dream of seeing floriculture flourish in Punjab.”
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The pioneer in the business walks fast, often leaving his better half Sukhvinder behind, but knows growing flowers, like love, takes time and patience to blossom. “Going from zero to 2,000 acres under floriculture in three decades is no mean achievement for Punjab,” he says when asked why growing flowers hasn’t taken root as a diversification option beyond the Patiala, Sangrur and Ludhiana belt.
Whether it is the business of cut flowers, raising saplings in nurseries, growing bulbs, producing seeds or processing extracts, floriculture fetches high returns. But conditions apply. This field needs an isolated vast area, water that is not saline, specialised training, skilled labour, and the owner’s hands-on involvement.
HOW THEY GREW
“Diversification in floriculture has been limited so far because it is labour and technology intensive, needs a vast field to avoid cross-pollination and is demand driven. The demand for flowers is catching up slowly so progressive farmers are warming up to this niche crop,” says Ajmer Singh, the head of the department of floriculture at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.
For those keen on adopting this field, the three national award-winning floriculturists of Patiala district suggest starting out small. Avtar Singh began with floriculture in 3.5 acres of the 18-acre ancestral land in 1985. “Start with an acre as you need to be directly involved even if you have trained labour. I drive down from my home in Ludhiana daily because I can’t ignore my flowers for even two days between October and May,” he says.
A mechanical engineer-turned-floriculturist Gurpreet Singh Shergill, who owns 36 acres at Mujhal Khurd, 15km from Patiala on the road to Samana, says, “My father Baldev Singh was a regular farmer who followed the wheat-paddy cycle. When I joined my elder brother Karamjit Singh in farming, we decided to diversify. I equipped myself with knowhow in floriculture, fish farming and beekeeping. We started with an acre of marigold in 1996.”
Today, he transports 10 quintals of fresh flowers, most of them red rose stems, daily in his pick-up jeep from his fields and polyhouses to florists in Patiala. Wholesalers pick up his fresh flower supply for Ludhiana and Chandigarh. “I grow a variety of flowers from marigold, gladioli, statice to the desi rose. This is a perishable product that needs care and supervision so I don’t venture out too far like Delhi. I started seed production two years ago,” he says.
NOT SO ROSY
Abdul Wahid, 52, a mechanical engineer from Patiala’s Thapar University who turned flower seed exporter, is the eighth generation of the family to stick with the ‘business’ of horticulture. “I could have made more money had I set up rice mills but I stuck to horticulture. My passion drives me,” he says of his farm set up in 1990 and spread over 30 acres at Dhablan village on the Patiala-Nabha stretch.
“In 25 years, we have trained 500-600 contract farmers in the vicinity to supplement our flower seed production and export. Many new farmers give up on floriculture when they face rough weather or encounter hardships as retaining labour is difficult and one has to be hands-on,” he says.
The labour cost is high as plucking dry flowers and processing for seeds involves manual work that calls for patience and diligence. No wonder these farms prefer employing women from surrounding areas.
“We grow seeds for foreign companies on contract. The labour cost is $80-100 (Rs 5,200-6,500) a day in Europe, while here it is $4-5 (Rs 250-300). Yet these women earn more than their husbands,” says Avtar Singh.
Since the demand for flower seeds is less in India, Wahid exports them to Holland, Poland and Germany. As an exporter, he hopes the government streamlines the certification for seed quality and germination standards. “We need an independent liaisoning and certification authority that both the exporter and customer abroad respect. Otherwise, we face exploitation and harassment at the hands of foreign companies,” he says. He cites stricter laws for foreign customers in China, Vietnam and even Tanzania.
Another concern he flags is hurdles at the Customs. “The import procedure is so slow that at times the mother seed stock from abroad arrives after the sowing season is over. This despite having all permits,” Wahid says. The productivity of seeds falls if not sown the same year.
Despite their struggles, all three floriculturists believe the secret of their success is staying rooted. “I’m a little stubborn,” admits Avtar Singh, “but you have to be stubborn to succeed.”
Shergill says the turning point for him was the winter of 2000. “Two acres of the marigold crop was damaged due to fog. When I reported the loss to my father he said: Kamana jaante ho toh khona bhi seekho (You know how to earn so learn to take loss too). I stuck to growing flowers and it has paid off.”
Another common feature with the three is that they have diversified to shield themselves from losses.
WHAT FARMERS WANT
To make floriculture a viable diversification option, the three farmers want the government to take up landscaping in its offices, grow flowers in public spaces, and improve infrastructure and connectivity. If the demand increases, more farmers will take to floriculture.
“The 1.5-crore population of Holland consumes more flowers than the 100 crore-plus people in India,” says Wahid.
He also suggests replacing rather than recycling seeds every season for sharp colours and uniform features.
Highlighting market fluctuation, Shergill says, “Jab tara doob jata hai toh hamara bhi tara doobta hai (During ‘inauspicious times’, we run out of luck too). But Shradh (the period of rites for the departed) is followed by the Navratras (nine days of festivities) so we have learnt to adapt.”
Avtar Singh hopes his alma mater, PAU, looks at innovative agriculture and studies market intelligence worldwide to help boost floriculture in Punjab.
The government can also support flower growers in marketing the produce in other states. “We need more automation in farming. PAU can help by developing specialised harvesting machinery. Make farming an attractive option for the youth,” says Wahid.
Meanwhile, a centre for excellence for floriculture is coming up at Doraha near Ludhiana in collaboration with Holland. The Centre has sanctioned Rs 7.5 crore and the state has received the first installment. “Farmers will be trained in applied floriculture technology to enhance profitability,” says Punjab horticulture director Gurkanwal Singh.