Tomato farmers in Andhra Pradesh, the largest tomato producing state in the country, are switching to polycropping methods by cultivating a variety of vegetables rather than depending only on a single crop of tomato whose prices are always fluctuating. Forty-three-year-old Bharathamma Poreddy, a traditional tomato farmer, is one such farmer who is inspiring others.
Bharathamma Poreddy, a traditional tomato farmer, standing in her cowpea field. All photos: WASSAN
Andhra Pradesh is India’s largest tomato producing state contributing 13 per cent of the total tomato crop cultivated in the country. However, it is also a crop which can make or break farmers. There are times of the year when the crop barely fetches Rs 2 per kilogram (kg) to the farmers and sometimes, like it is now, tomato prices have crossed Rs 50-90 per kg in several cities.
“Tomato is a dicey crop with highly fluctuating prices. Making profits from it is like a lottery. Either you get everything or nothing at all,” Kadiri-based Sandeep Chiyyedu, regional project coordinator, WASSAN, Andhra Pradesh told Gaon Connection. WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network), a national-level resource support organisation, is working in Chittoor and Anantapur districts of the state to diversify the monocropping systems in these areas to boost farm income.
“Since there are high risks associated with tomato crop, we are helping farmers switch from monocropping of tomato to other crops such as cowpea, lettuce, and brinjals. And the results are encouraging,” said Chiyyedu.
Some farmers in Chittoor and Anantapur districts of Andhra Pradesh have adopted a polycrop model, which involves cultivating a mix of crops, to boost their income.
For instance, Bharathamma Poreddy, a traditional tomato farmer, started sowing cowpea in place of tomatoes when she incurred huge losses last year.
“We received good rainfall last year, even the small farmers dependent on rain [for irrigation] started growing tomatoes,” the 43-year-old farmer, a resident of Bandrepalli village in Nallacheruvu Mandal of Anantapur district, told Gaon Connection, in her mother tongue Telugu. “The production was very high and this meant we would not get good rates for our crop. I had to remove an entire tomato crop from my fields last year,” she added.
It was a harsh lesson for Bharathamma to not practice monocropping and never put all her apples in one basket. “I incurred huge losses. I decided to remove tomatoes from my field and switched to growing cowpea,” she said.
Supported by WASSAN, in January this year, Bharathamma decided to grow cowpea instead of tomatoes in one acre (0.40 hectares) of her farmland of three acres (1.21 hectares). The crop, as she expected, brought her a good income.
She harvested the crop last month in September. It brought her an income of nearly Rs 200,000 against an investment of Rs 50,000 per acre.
The cowpea was sold in two varieties, one as fresh vegetable and the other as dry seeds. Latter fetched her a better price.
She managed to sell about 3,500 kgs of vegetable cowpea and 500 kgs of its dry seeds. “I sold green vegetables for around twenty five rupees per kg. However, dry seeds were sold for about sixty rupees per kg,” the 43-year-old farmer said.
It was Bharathamma who decided to remove the tomato crop and adopt the polycrop model to sow cowpea. Her husband, Chandramohan Reddy, however, opposed the decision.
But, she went against his wishes and sowed cowpea in his absence. “My husband insisted on growing bitter gourd and ridge gourd after I removed tomatoes. The input costs would have been high if we did otherwise. We were not in a condition to take more loans. So I sowed cowpea when he was out in the market,” giggled Bharathamma. “He did not say anything when he came back,” she added.
According to her, the investment for brinjals and other creepers would have been over Rs 100,000 per acre. However, with cowpea she had to invest half of this amount and earned a handsome profit.
At present, tomato prices are soaring in the country. The data shared by the consumer affairs ministry on October 18 shows the retail price of tomatoes was ruling at more than Rs 50 per kg in over 50 cities out of 175-odd cities in the country.
Among metro cities, tomatoes were sold at Rs 93 per kg in Kolkata, Rs 60 per kg in Chennai, Rs 59 per kg in Delhi and Rs 53 per kg in Mumbai.
In Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, tomatoes are being sold for Rs 80 a kilo. Prices of tomatoes, as per media reports, have jumped 50 per cent in the city since October 1.
This price hike is reportedly attributed to decline in supply amid the crop damage due to the unseasonal rains in key growing states such as Andhra Pradesh. The upward trend is expected to continue in the coming days.
However, such high prices of tomato crops rarely benefit the farmers.
“The present price in the market is fifteen hundred for a thirty kilo box. But last year when I had sown the crop, a box of thirty kilos was being sold at seventy rupees,” said Bharathamma. This is 21 times less than the present market price.
Besides, she had to bear the transportation cost of at least Rs 4,000 to Madanapalle market, nearly 70 kilometres from her village, for a crop that would be sold at throwaway prices.
Amid low incomes and huge losses of farmers in the state, WASSAN came up with a polycrop model to diversify the tomato crop. In this method, leafy vegetables such as lettuce, fenugreek, coriander, or creepers such as ridge/ bottle gourds, radish and brinjal are planted along with tomatoes.
“Monocrops have their own disadvantages, for example pest and diseases risk is more. Besides, there is market rate risk,” Hyderabad-based Bhagya Laxmi, associate director, WASSAN, told Gaon Connection. “Whereas the polycrops model is helpful to farmers in a way when there are chances of risk from one crop the profits from other can help. It’s like having insurance,” she added.
“Instead of taking a solo crop of tomato, with the same or slightly more quantity of water [for irrigation], these farmers can take up polycrops to get more net incomes,” added the associate director.
This initiative of WASSAN started last year. Fifty two tomato farmers in 14 villages, including Bharathamma, agreed to try the polycrop model to diversify the tomato in small areas. After promising results, 123 more farmers from across 35 villages have adopted the polycrop model this year.
According to the monthly report 2020, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare data, with a total production of 2,667.43 thousand metric tonnes in 2019-20 (second advance estimate), Andhra Pradesh shares about 13 per cent of all India produce.
Last year in August, Bharathamma took a loan of Rs 300,000 for tomato farming on her field of three acres (1.2 hectares). The entire crop was lost due to a crash in tomato prices.
However, with the money earned by selling her cowpea crop last month, the 43-year-old has repaid a part of that loan. “I repaid an eighty thousand rupees loan and reinvested a small amount for another season. I feel happy that I decided to grow cowpea instead of tomatoes,” said Bharathamma.
Extreme weather events, fluctuating crop prices and the pandemic have further pushed farming families into debt.
A report titled ‘Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019’, released on September 10, highlighted that half of agricultural households in the country were in debt.
The report pointed out that 5.7 per cent of the outstanding loans were taken from non institutional sources such as relatives and friends, and 3.2 per cent of loans were taken from institutional sources such as self help groups.