'Winter Dawn' and 'Sweet Charlie', the two varieties cultivated in Munnar are among the sweetest and most-sought after in the export market," K Prathapan, mission director, Kerala State Horticulture Mission, told FE. At 1,450 metres above sea-level, the farmers in Munnar have been able to convert about 300 hectares of land to strawberry orchards.
They produce the berries at about 10-12 tonnes per acre. Major domestic markets for the fruit are Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kochi.
Dipping from Centre's Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana funds, the State Horticulture Mission has opened a Rs 1.5-crore strawberry processing plant in Munnar last week. This would enable marketing of strawberry as puree, jams and other products, with longer shelf-life.
"The processing plant is a joint venture between the state and the local farmers. This initiative would create 1,000 jobs, mainly for women from the state-run poverty alleviation programme Kudumbasree," said Lal Varghese, chairman, Kerala State Horticulture Mission.
This does not mean that the export option will not be utilized. "On occasions when the fruit commands higher export market price than the domestic market gains from processed strawberry, we''ll grab the opportunity of exporting the fruit," said K Muthuvel, a strawberry grower. The main export destinations of Indian strawberries, according to APEDA ( Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), are Bangladesh, Austria, US, Germany and Jordan.
In the Malaysian market, Indian strawberry has been competing with the current market leader, the Egyptian strawberry. This initiative was mainly by the Indian variety from Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar. The Panchgani growers had switched to the exports last year, when the domestic price stayed at Rs 60 per kilo. Usually, Indian cities offer about Rs 120 or above for premium grade strawberries.
The Munnar farmers are fretful of the Panchagani experience of dependency on strawberry cultivation. "Some of the local farmers are wary of the export processes in fruit export that would need a lot of tedious documentation on permitted pesticides and fertilizers, although there is a tidy fortune in profits. They are comfortable with the domestic market that caters to the foreign tourists in major Indian cities. The processing plant is also an assurance of profitabilty," said Muthuvel.
The March-April period is the peak season for strawberry production.