Export of the Kerala variety of Alphonso mangoes brings seasonal business to the tune of Rs 300 crore every year. But this year, an erratic weather has reversed the fortunes. The late flowering of mango trees this year , which upset growers' plans, was timely for the raw material sourcing crunch the pickle industry has been facing.
"The recent proliferation of pickle brands in Kerala and the seasonal pickle export demand to Gulf have forced a scurry for sourcing tender mangoes. So, much before the mangoes get ripe, we strike contracts with the tree owners to harvest the tender mangoes," said AT Chakkunni, who procures tender mangoes for many pickle brands in north and central Kerala. The state has mango orchards spread across Palakkad, Kozhinjampara, Malapuram, Kuttippuram, Valancheri and Ponnani. The main varieties that pickle manufacturers have culled together are Malgova, Himayat, Sinthoori, Thottapuri and Chelan. The tender mangoes are brought at premium prices in the range of Rs 120-130 a kilo, Rs 80-90 a kilo and Rs 75-80 a kilo for different varieties and grades.
For growers, the loss of its niche in the export market amounts to loss of prestige rather than failure to achieve cost realisation. Muthalamada in Palakkad, nicknamed mango city, had been gradually making reputation for supplying the year's first ripe mangoes to the world. Besides Peru and Bolivia, Palakkad in Kerala is the only geo-climatic pocket, where mangoes ripen as early as January. In 2008, Alphonso mangoes from Palakkad fetched Rs 1, 200 a er box, weighing 6.5 kg, giving the seller a plump margin to the tune of Rs 700. Sniffing a price feast in that season, researchers in Pattanakad Agricultural College, Kasargode, had plunged to an ambitious R&D project to trace lost native mango varieties. They enriched the gene bank with 32 rare varieties, but are yet to break the alternate year fruit bearing habit of Alphonso mangoes.
"Vagaries of the southwest monsoon last year caused late blooming of the flowers in trees this season in Muthalamada," PK Haneefa, secretary, mango farmers association, told FE.
Muthalamada last year produced 35,000 tonnes of Malgova, Sindhooram, Kalpadi, Alphonso and Banganapalli varieties from its 4,500 hectares under mango cultivation. About five years ago, the Muthalamada orchards culled export orders to the the tune of 2,600 kg at fancy prices. "Barely one-tenth of the usual stock of ripe mangoes is available for market this year," said Haneefa.
Kerala has an estimated 75,911 hectares under mango cultivation with an annual production of 3,23,517 tonne. Only a small portion of this output feeds to the export market of ripe mango. Following the recent spurt in pickle industry demand, growers may not suffer huge losses even when they miss the premium export demand during the first ripe mango season. At the same time, the pressure of having to sell off the sweetest varieties at the tender mango stage could whistle an end to a unique mango flavour in the international market.
Pickle industry, after all, may gradually shift to cheaper varieties for tender mangoes, leaving the rare sweet breeds to commercial extinction.