Post-summer havoc, record price for cardamom doesn't spice up Idukki farmers' life

Farmers engaged in replanting cardamom at Kattapana. Photo: Vipin Vijayan

Idukki: On a normal Sunday morning, Justin Thomas, a farmer in Kattappana, strolls along his cardamom plantation and surveys his plants closely before leaving for church. He comes back, has a tasty lunch with his family, cracks jokes over food and they look forward to having a good time together. The routine has changed.

This Sunday, Thomas is unmindful of the streaks of sunlight that sneak in through the foliage of tall trees surrounding the plantation. He was busy salvaging whatever cardamom plants the summer had left behind; scouring for stems that could be replanted, stacking up piles of withered plants, and directing a bunch of migrant labourers he had coaxed to work for him on Sunday at a higher wage.

This summer Thomas has lost over 2000 plants which he had carefully grown over 2-3 years spread across 4 acres. It isn’t easy for him to even take a look around the scale of devastation the summer has left behind. 

Kattapana, the major hub of cardamom cultivation in Idukki went without showers for around 140 days since the first week of January. By the time it rained on May 21 it was too late. A large area of cardamom plants had withered and fallen to the soil. In the past week, the farmers were helping out each other by exchanging healthy stems which they hoped to plant and then waiting for a good yield. 

Thomas is one among them. He can’t afford to relax on Sundays anymore. This is his life, so is the case for many other farmers in Idukki.

A view of destroyed cardamom plants. Photo: VIpin Vijayan

On Saturday, 95262kg of cardamom was put up for sale in the auction held at Puttady Spices Park and 93561kg was sold. The highest price was Rs 3116 per kg, a record price for top-grade cardamom capsule this season and in the past five years. The average price was Rs 2304.97 a kg and the lowest price was Rs 1549; figures that would have normally made the farmers happy.

The summer has sapped every bit of energy out of them. Farmers say that even if they get an average of Rs 1500 per kg, they can cultivate cardamom profitably. This year, farmers expect to yield from only 30% of the total area under cultivation. 
They are neck-deep in debts and loss and the only way they can move on is to borrow healthy stems and try again.

It will take four more months to get income from the cardamom plants that withstood the summer. It is not an easy task. It takes two to three years to plant cardamom and ready it for harvest. In previous years, cardamom plants were priced between Rs 60 and Rs 80. But now the nurseries are charging between Rs 120 and Rs 175. Farmers are helping out each other by lending whatever healthy plants they have.

"Around 400 to 450 plants can be planted on an acre of land. It will cost about Rs 2.5 lakh a year to cultivate on one acre. The yield is obtained from the plant after three years. No other crops can be intercropped with cardamom. Due to this cost, not all farmers can go for replanting,’’ said Manoj P G, another cardamom farmer.

They had high hopes this season. Cardamom in this season fetched Rs 2100 to 2300 per kg. An average of Rs 1450 was received in the months of January, February and March. The price of cardamom increased with the arrival of summer. Thomas said the price of cardamom is likely to increase further as the plants have been destroyed.  

Price rise means bigger problems for the farmers. "As prices increase, so do the cost of fertilizers and pesticides. Similarly, there will be an increase in the wages of the employees. But by the time the next season comes, the price of cardamom will decrease and the cost of wages and fertilizer will remain the same,’’ he said.

Thomas has lost over 2000 plants which he had carefully grown over 2-3 years spread across 4 acres. Photo: Vipin Vijayan

Labour shortage doesn’t help them either. Earlier, many workers from Tamil Nadu used to come to the cardamom plantations in Kerala. Today their numbers have decreased significantly. If fertilizers and insecticides are not applied on time, cardamom plants will wilt. If the harvest is delayed, the capsules will drop off and there will be heavy loss. The farmers are engaging migrant labourers even on Sundays.

Agriculture Minister P Prasad said in a meeting with the representatives of the farmers' organization in Kattappana that in the preliminary calculation, a loss of Rs 175 crore has been incurred in cardamom cultivation in Idukki alone. Prasad said the government will provide appropriate assistance to the farmers who have suffered damage. According to the data of the Department of Agriculture, the cardamom in 16200 hectares was destroyed in Idukki.

The farmers dismiss these figures. "We know how much we have suffered,’’ a farmer says with a wry smile.

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