When Rajeev Bhaskar passed out of the G B Pant University of Agriculture in Uttarakhand with a degree in BSc. Horticulture, little did he know that he would be a farmer one day. He did not come from a family of farmers and the graduate degree in 2013 landed him a job in Raipur-based VNR Seeds, where he became part of the sales and marketing team.
While working at VNR, Rajeev completed his MBA from Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies and was looking after VNR’s sales operations in north India when the farming bug bit him. Dealing with sales of seeds and saplings for over four years, Rajeev thought of trying plantation firsthand.
“In those four years, I had learned so much about farming especially about the Thai Guava variety that I was keen to take up horticulture myself. It would be just implementation of the knowledge I had been disseminating to others as a sales representative of the seed company,” he says.
Thai Guava has a shelf life of 12 days at a room temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. With the size of a softball and mildly sweet taste, it is one of the most in-demand varieties in India right now.
Rajeev decided to give it a try.
The trial fields
So in September 2017, he took 5 acres of land on lease in Panchkula, Haryana. The land belonged to a farmer who could not look after the Thai guava plants, which had been planted in 2015. “I took over the farm and figured out what was to be done. The plants were already two years old and needed fertilisers and sprays besides regular irrigation,” says Rajeev, who is from Uttarakhand.
Thai Guava has high demand due to its mildly sweet taste and long shelf life. Pic: Courtesy Rajeev Bhaskar
He practices residue-free farming, which implies the use of pesticides and fungicides below the level that can cause harm to humans by maintaining a gap between spraying and harvesting.
Every pesticide has a specific pre-harvest interval (PHI), which is the wait time between a pesticide application and when a crop can be harvested. “Newer products have PHI of only 3 to 5 days while older products have 45 to 60 days. We use hydrogen peroxide, which doesn’t have any residue and has no direct impact on the fruit,” he says.
“Moreover, no spray is done 15-20 days before the harvest,” he adds.
Residue-free farming is gaining traction alongside organic farming in India because of availability of products with low PHI, high nutrition content in produce and its ability to give good yields without adversely impacting soil quality.
Guava plants begin fruiting in the third year when each plant typically gives 10kg of fruits. The output rises in the subsequent year to 25 kg and continues at this average during the 15-year-life of the plant.
Rajeev Bhaskar at his farm. In the background, plants can be seen after bagging. Pic: courtesy Rajeev Bhaskar
With Rajeev’s application of farming best practices, the guava plants at the Panchkula farm began flowering in a few months and the flowers turned into tiny guava fruits. “Once fruits attain the size of a small lemon, we go for bagging to protect them from various biotic and abiotic stresses,” Rajeev says.
Abiotic stresses to plants include extreme variations in temperature while attacks from pathogens and herbivores count among biotic stresses.
The three-layer bagging involves covering the fruits with a foam net, anti-fog polythene bags, and paper respectively.
“I had gross sales of Rs 20 lakh in 2018 at an investment of Rs 6.5 lakh. In 2019, sales were Rs 24 lakh despite depressed market prices that year,” he says.
Thinking bigger, growing better
The results encouraged Rajeev to expand the scale and he joined hands with two investors to take 50 acres of land on lease in 2019, this time in Noorpur Bedi, Ropar, Punjab. Despite being from Uttarakhand, Rajeev chose Punjab and Haryana for farming due to ample availability of large landholdings.
This farm is on the Satluj River Basin (SRB), a semi-arid area with medium to fine sandy soil, which makes irrigation challenging because sand absorbs the water instead of allowing it to flow to the plants. “Local farmers are mostly engaged in the cultivation of poplar (type of timber wood) due to challenges around irrigation,” Rajeev says.
Drip irrigation ensures delivery of water and nutrients to the root zone. Pic: courtesy Rajeev Bhaskar
“Firstly, we planned the farm scientifically and opted for drip irrigation to minimise water wastage and ensure that the optimum amount of water reaches the plant.”
Drip irrigation is considered the best in arid and semi-arid regions because water is delivered directly to the root zone of the crop through pipes. He went in for pressure-compensated drippers, which deliver exactly the right amounts of water and nutrients to every plant even in uneven topographies.
“Secondly, we opted for Thai Guava variety to maximize returns.”
While A grade Thai Guava fetches up to Rs 120 per kg, the B grade variety sells for Rs 50 per kg. In contrast, other varieties sell for only Rs 30 to Rs 40 per kg due to low shelf life.
Their reach is limited to the local market as they begin to change colour and taste after 24 hours. This reduces the bargaining power of growers.
“Longer shelf life gives us a good time to negotiate rates and club transportation, which reduces costs,” he says.
“Third, we went for on-farm packaging of guavas (under the Himnoor brand) to ensure minimum damage and maximum freshness during transportation,” says Rajeev, who supplies the produce to wholesale markets in Delhi, Mumbai, Siliguri, Ludhiana and Jalandhar.
Process & economics of guava farming
He planted the VNR Bihi variety guava in 25 acres of this land parcel. “The plantation is done at a gap of 10ft by 8ft and we can plant other crops like watermelon, musk melon, cauliflower and radish in this gap to optimize land utilisation,” says Rajeev, who has also set up his agriculture consultancy firm.
Guava plants start fruiting in the third year. Pic: courtesy Rajeev Bhaskar
Guava plants flower thrice a year but harvesting is done only annually between July and September. “There is competition from other varieties during October to January due to which we don’t get good rates. So we let the plant rest during this period, without harvesting,” he points out.
About 540 guava plants can be planted over one acre.
He harvested the first lot in 2021 and sold the produce for Rs 86 lakh.
“This year, our production will be 250 tonnes,” he says, adding that it will bring in Rs 2.5 crore revenues (at market rate of Rs100 per kg).
Rajeev points out that the production cost at his farm is about Rs 40 per kg including water, agriculture inputs and labour costs. And guavas are sold at about Rs 100 per kg, leaving a profit of Rs 60 per kg or Rs 6 lakh per acre. Even if the market is depressed and the price falls to Rs 80 per kg, there will still be a profit of Rs 4 lakh per acre.
“Labour costs are high in our area. In places like Madhya Pradesh, the profit can be even higher as farm labour rates are lower, due to which cost of production goes down to Rs 20-25 per kg.”
However, to get a good profit, he advises a minimum farm area of 5 acres. “This will provide the grower with economies of scale and he can transport the fruits to far off places. The initial investment is Rs5.5 lakh per acre by the time first fruits appear and then the annual cost is Rs 4 lakh per acre,” he says. Besides, technical knowledge of farming is important to plan the land usage and ensure optimum application of fertilisers and pesticides.
Rajeev’s farm has had a positive impact on the area as land prices there have started going up. “Earlier, locals were only involved in poplar cultivation due to the sandy nature of the soil. Now drip irrigation is an option and other farmers are trying to diversify. So land prices are increasing,” he adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)