The establishment of a pre-cooling unit by an enterprising farmer in Mahabaleshwar \u2014 the strawberry belt of Maharashtra \u2014 could mean a huge boost to the farmers in the region. Until now, despite strong demand from other states, farmers in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani belt of Maharashtra were unable to cater to these requirements since this is a perishable fruit and has a short shelf life of barely two days. Thanks to the new unit established by Kisan Bhilare, president, Mahabaleshwar Cooperative Fruits, Flowers and Vegetable Buyer Seller Association at neighbouring Wai, several farmers have begun to benefit. After initial success with a small pre-cooling unit set up at a local school in Mahabaleshwar, using funds from the Bhilar Gram Panchayat funds, Bhilare decided that this was not enough and more needed to be done. He invested in a four-tonne pre-cooling unit at Wai following demand from several corporates and traders. Because of this unit, farmers can now store their strawberries here without fear of the fruit going bad, he said. With the pre-cooling and blast freeze facilities, the shelf life of strawberry has gone upto four days. The facility is offered on a lease of `5 per kg for four hours and currently four tonne are being processed on a daily basis, Bhilare said. Bhilare says that demand has come from Big Bazaar, Big Basket, Reliance Fresh and traders from the Jharkhand, Kolkata, Guwahati and Delhi while Jaipur has shown interest in procuring strawberries. Strawberries are now sent by air to Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata and Jharkhand and by road to Hyderabad, Goa and Benguluru. \u201cAn expression of interest has come from Saudi Arabia and we are in the process of clearing the paperwork,\u201d he stated. Should the paperwork work out, farmers from Mahabaleshwar could send some 700 to 800 kg strawberries by air on a daily basis to Saudi Arabia, he stated. This season, strawberry has been cultivated on 3,000 acres, nearly 200 acres more than the last season. According to Bhilare, the crop is good this time and yield could go upto 200 kg per acre. At present, some four pre-cooling units are in operation in Bhilar and Wai.Farmers are presently getting `200 per kg for their produce. Balasaheb Bhilare, another major strawberry farmer in Bhilar, however, maintains that the crop could get affected due to the recent cold wave conditions in Mahabaleshwar when a thin sheet of ice formed over Venna lake and the strawberry fields. He said one cannot predict the condition and the quantum of the crop at this juncture. The daily production from the 2,000-acre strawberry plantation in Mahabaleshwar and surrounding regions is around 10 tonne during the season.