Rajasthan’s olive branch
Nov 11, 2012 TNN
Apart of the Mediterranean has come to arid Rajasthan. No, it's not its salubrious climate or awe-inspiring beauty. Instead, it's the small olive fruit that has spawned a revolution in vast swathes of the state and given a new lease of life to farmers who were struggling to make ends meet with wheat, cotton and bajra.
Pilot projects on olive cultivation has been on for the last four years in seven districts of the state. Khetaram Phagoria, a farmer from Sriganganagar district, says, "I have pinned my last hopes on olive. Wheat has taken me nowhere as I can just about make ends meet, while pests have almost consumed my cotton crop this year. Yields are declining but labour costs have surged."
And though the prices of wheat have risen somewhat, the gains are too meager. Also, with middlemen taking a cut at every level of the value chain, Khetaram and others like him are left with little to sustain themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures and that's how he decided to try his luck with olive farming. He's already diverted one hectare out 10 for its cultivation.
It wasn't an easy decision. Olive trees, after all, take four years to bear fruit. However, their productive age lasts for 70 years and they can survive more than 500 years. It was in 2007 that Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd (ROCL) planted olive trees in seven plantations in seven different agro-climatic zones spread over 182 hectares in the state. The fruits of that labour were borne this year when olives were harvested and led to hope of an alternative type of farming.
A recent sample extraction found that oil content in the fruit grown in Rajasthan was 14.6%, more than the average for a tree that's four years old. After the success of these pilot projects, ROCL has now opened the crop for commercial cultivation. ROCL, incidentally, is a joint venture between Rajasthan State Agriculture Board, Plastro Plasson of Pune and Israel's Indolive Ltd.
"For these crops to be financially viable, the fruits should have about 12% oil content. As the tree matures, this percentage goes up. But seeing the higher oil content in the first crop, ROCL now plans to have 5,000 hectares under olive cultivation within three years," says Yogesh Verma, manager, ROCL.
A cluster approach has been adopted for efficient monitoring and managing the crop. Accordingly, commercial cultivation of olive has now been opened for farmers in Bikaner, Hanumangarh, Nagaur and Sriganganagar where pilot projects have shown promise. Already, 40 hectares have been approved and more farmers are queuing up, says Verma. An olive extraction machine worth Rs 3 crore has been bought by ROCL and it will be set up in Bikaner soon.
What's more, it could fetch the farmers a handsome remuneration. While they earn about Rs 1 lakh per hectare annually from traditional crops like wheat and bajra, olive cultivation could fetch them double the amount, says Verma. The cost of planting olives is estimated at Rs 60,000 a hectare, with the government giving a subsidy of Rs 40,000 and an annual fertilizer grant of Rs 3,000 for three years. ROCL has trained professionals to monitor and guide farmers.
There is a groundswell of expectations riding on the success of these projects as weary farmers have been battling harsh summers and water-scarcity here for decades. Although olives are grown in mild climatic conditions, Rajasthan's cold spells hold the key to the survival of these trees, which require less water and are strong enough to weather scorching summers.
Verma says that Rajasthan shares similar climatic conditions with Israel, which has been able to grow olives successfully. Israeli technology, which uses drip-irrigation and sensors, has been at the heart of this Rs 6 crore experiment. While drip-irrigation uses water effectively, sensors show what and how much nutrient and fertilizer the trees require.
After seeing the success of olive cultivation in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Orissa too have shown an interest in it. Last month, the Punjab approved a pilot project for olive cultivation.
This could also change the health habits of people. Olive oil has many health benefits and is widely used in the Mediterranean for cooking. It contains high monounsaturated fats and antioxidants which help in bringing down bad cholesterol and prevents cardiovascular problems. While its use is still confined to the health-conscious affluent minority in India, the increasing purchasing power of people is slowly leading to more users.
But the price of olive oil in India is four times higher than traditional oils. Extra virgin olive oil used for cooking costs about Rs 800 a litre and olive pomace oil, Rs 400. But if it is produced indigenously, the prices could well come down.
India currently imports all its olive oil from leading olive producing nations such as Spain, Italy and Greece. "Olive oil consumption is growing fast in India and imports have surged from 4,300 metric tonne in 2010-11 to 7,500 tonne in 2011-12. It is projected that in the current financial year, the imports will touch 12,000 metric tonnes," says V N Dalmiya, president of Indian Olive Association (IOA)."
Hopefully, the fruits of success will touch more lives.