After a successful trial last year, strawberry growers in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani belt of Maharashtra are gearing up to step up exports to Malaysia this season.
Last year, four consignments were sent to Malaysia on a trial basis and this year there has been a demand from the country again, according to Strawberries Growers Association of India chairman Balasabe Bhilare.
The association plans to send around 25 tonne of strawberries to Malaysia this year and is also exploring options to send strawberries to neighbouring countries as well, Bhilare said.
A trial order from Sri Lanka for one tonne of strawberries every week last year did not work owing to the costs involved. So, farmers have decided to focus on other markets, he said.
The constant weather change and sudden rainfall have not only hit production but also quality of the fruit this year and as a result, the prices have gone up to R150 per kg from R120 per kg last year. Production is expected to come down by 25-30% as compared to last year to 22,000 metric tonne from an expected production of 30,000 metric tonne at the start of the season.
This year, around 3,000 acres have been planted and the yield was expected to touch 30,000 tonne, Bhilare said. The association was expecting surplus yield since farmers had planted strawberries on an additional 1,000-1,500 acres.
Strawberries are being sold at R150 per kg, he said, adding that it would be difficult to predict the trends in the coming months. The rate usually falls to R50 kg towards the end of the season in January.
Around 2,000 farmers are involved in strawberry cultivation. Satara district accounts for the country’s 80% strawberry production and the fruit is grown mainly in Mahabaleshwar, Wai and Panchagani areas.
The Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar belt contributes around 85% of the total production in the country. The rest comes from Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Like the previous year, farmers have been seeking new domestic markets. In addition to regular markets in Mumbai and Pune, the association has seen a rise in demand from markets in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. Around 15-20 tonne of strawberries find their way to Chennai and Bangalore. This year, there is demand from Delhi and Kolkata as well.
Demands have started pouring in from retail chains, including Reliance Retail that has opened a collection centre in Panchgani. This is the only chain to have a direct tie-up with the association while others source strawberries through agents. Reliance would buy around 5 tonne per day from the association. Over 85% of the total production is sold as table fruit in the domestic market, while about 2,000 tonne goes for processing, Bhilare said.
Strawberry season begins in November and lasts till March every year.
Bhilare pointed out that there were too many hassles involved in exports and therefore it was easier to tap the domestic market. Pesticide residue norms in strawberries pose a major problem for potential exporters and a pilot consignment sent a few years ago had to be sent back because of this issue. Farmers usually end up using pesticides because of erratic climatic conditions and this causes problems later on, he said.
Farmers have planted the Italian variety of saplings that are giving better results. The mother saplings of Rania, Nabila, Winter Dawn and Sweet Charlie varieties have been planted in the region in September. The average earning per acre of strawberries is about R80,000 to R1 lakh. India is a negligible player in the world strawberry market of over four million tonne. United States is the biggest producer.