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Engineer quits US job to cultivate exotic fruits in TN, earns four times more per acre than traditional fruits

Varkey George earns Rs4.25 lakh per acre by farming passion fruit and sells avocados and Meyer lemons at over Rs330 per kg. Sold under the Life Exotics brand, the fruits with different harvest seasons ensure steady income throughout the year 

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Chandhini R
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Varkey George at his farm in Theni, Tamil Nadu

Varkey George standing next to an avocado tree at his farm in Theni, Tamil Nadu

After pursuing his postgraduation in electrical engineering at the University of Texas and working in the US for six years, Varkey George got an opportunity to return to India and take up farming. Hailing from an agrarian family, Varkey spent his formative years on his ancestral farm in Kootickkal, Kerala. When he was working for Texas Instruments in the US, his family acquired land in Kombai, Theni, in Tamil Nadu. 

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"I was caught in a dilemma, wrestling with the options to stay in the US or move back to India. Eventually, in 2011, I took the plunge and since then I have been managing this 170-acre farm," Varkey tells 30Stades.

Over the last ten years in Tamil Nadu, the low-value traditional harvests like vegetables and coconuts have been posing limitations with stagnant prices, and rising input, and labour costs. Recognising this unsustainable model, Varkey ventured into exotic fruit cultivation on his farmland in Theni's Kombai. 

Also Read: Kerala’s 78-year-old jackfruit farmer who grows 400 varieties organically

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"Now, having been farming for more than a decade, I realise that I may have underestimated the level of effort involved in farming," he says. 

"Compared to engineering, where mistakes can be quickly rectified, and the learning cycle is short, agriculture presents a different challenge. The risks are substantial, and if a mistake is made, the correction often needs to wait until the next year, making the process more demanding," he says. 

passion fruit plants
Passion fruit trees at Varkey George's farm. Pic: Varkey George

Shift to exotic fruit farming

According to Varkey, the prices of coconuts, which they have been cultivating on around 15 acres, have been hovering around Rs 10 for the last ten years. It is a similar case with vegetables (the average price of a vegetable per kg may vary from Rs 12 to Rs 35). With the production and labour costs growing by 10 percent, Varkey says he had to think out of the box. 

"I thought of cultivating high-value products. Almost six years ago, a few of my farmer friends in Kerala and I began pilot projects: Some planted tropical fruits like rambutan and a few others mangosteen, etc. The results were impressive." 

Also Read: How this farmer earns Rs 6 lakh per acre from organic farming of dates

Now, Varkey, on his farm in Kombai, grows exotic fruit varieties. He cultivates longans on three acres, Meyer lemons and grapefruit on seven acres, passion fruit on six acres and has planted 30 avocado plants on a pilot basis. 

The cultivation of exotic fruits is done alongside traditional crops such as coconut, mangoes, chickoo, pomegranate, and vegetables, to ensure that a variety of micronutrients thrive and improve fertility of the soil.

Exotic fruits like mangosteen, passion fruit, dragon fruit, figs, and others are rapidly gaining popularity in India. Many farmers are now cultivating them depending on the local climatic conditions.

longan trees
A longan tree laden with fruits. Pic: Varkey George

According to the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, the area under exotic fruit cultivation was 28 lakh hectares as in 2021-2022. Madhya Pradesh is the leader with 11.35 lakh hectares under exotic fruit farming which yields 12 million metric tonnes of fruits. It is followed by Maharashtra which ranks second with 11.20 lakh hectares, producing about 11 million metric tonnes.

Varkey observes that exotic fruit cultivation in India is currently in its nascent stage. He combines information available on the internet with traditional knowledge to arrive at the best farming methodologies in the given climatic conditions.

“A vital aspect of our approach is the selection of saplings. We believe that a good beginning is half done,” he says. 

So choosing the right nursery for horticulture is essential. “We source our saplings from Homegrown in Kanjarapally in Kerala, which consistently provides the best quality. The prices of saplings vary from Rs 300 to Rs 600. This careful selection process is integral to avoiding potential waste of time and money over three to four years," Varkey says. 

Also Read: Building contractor turns agri-entrepreneur, earns Rs2 lakh per month from 9,000 sq ft organic nursery

"There is a strong focus on the technical aspects of cultivation. Each fruit has specific nutritional and water requirements. The harvesting patterns vary; for instance, logans have a short harvest period of one to two weeks, unlike citrus fruits which exhibit a gradual peak followed by a gradual decline. All this must be taken care of," he shares. 

avocados at varkey george farm
Avocados sell at Rs300 to Rs400 per kg. Pic: Varkey George

Yield and revenues

Varkey grows passion fruit over six acres. Passion fruit is native to Brazil and in India, it is grown in Himachal Pradesh, the North East and the Western Ghats. “We have been harvesting passion fruits for the last two years. We harvested around 30 tonnes (30,000 kg), an average of about five tonnes per acre, last year. It was sold for Rs 75-85 per kg,” he says. 

At this rate, passion fruit cultivation gives an income of Rs4.25 lakh per acre.

He sells avocados for Rs 300 to Rs 400 per kg. Varkey will harvest the first crop of longans, a tropical fruit similar to lychee, this month (January) while grapefruit's first harvest will be in June 2024. “We expect to sell longans and grapefruit for Rs 330 per kg,” he says. 

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It’s the first year of cropping for Meyer lemons, and its retail price is Rs 330-Rs 350 per kg. "The revenues from exotic fruit cultivation are three to four times higher than traditional crops," he says.

longan and lemon
Longan fruit (left) and Meyer Lemon (right). Pic: Varkey George

Farming methodology

One of the important factors for exotic fruit cultivation is to meticulously measure the soil parameters. For this, Varkey conducts soil tests to assess nutrient levels and supplement any deficiencies because the plants grow optimally only when provided with the right nutrients.

The next crucial aspect is watering. Excessive watering can hurt the root issues and cause fungal diseases, hindering fruit development. "Irrigation requirements vary daily based on climatic conditions and the transpiration process. To ensure precision, we utilise tensiometers placed at the surface level (6 inches) and the root zone (12 inches). This helps us to plan irrigation for maintaining an optimum moisture level,” he says.

“Tensiometers need not be placed for every plant; instead, they can be strategically located in representative areas across the entire cultivated land, ensuring efficient water usage," Varkey explains. 

The taste of the fruits is another significant factor that determines their quality. To gauge sweetness, Varkey employs a Brix refractometer. 

"By extracting the flesh of a fruit and squeezing a few drops onto the meter, the sweetness level can be measured, with each fruit variety having a distinct optimal range. Like export quality grapes may have a Brix value of 17, while logans typically range between 20-25 Brix,” he says.

Harvesting time is based on these sweetness measurements to ensure the fruits are optimally sweet and ripened.

meyer lemon and rang
The produce is marketed under the Life Exotics brand. Pic: Varkey George

"While our farm is not officially GAP certified, we practice Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in our farming methods. We judiciously use fertilisers and incorporate farmyard manure as needed,” he says. 

Marketing of exotic fruits

Varkey believes farmers should themselves package fruits for sale either directly to supermarkets or wholesalers. “It is the most advantageous approach. This method reduces market volatility and enables farmers to realise better prices,” he says. 

“There are five to six other farmers like me based in Kerala, cultivating various fruits like rambutan, litchi, mangosteen etc. Our collective products are branded as ‘Life Exotics’ and are supplied to supermarkets or wholesalers. This diversification ensures a steady supply throughout the year as the seasons vary. Our produce is primarily sold in Kochi, followed by Mumbai and Delhi," Varkey shares. 

(Chandhini R is a Kerala-based journalist specialising in human interest, entertainment, and art and culture stories)

Also Read: Chhattisgarh’s MBA farmer earns Rs6 lakh per acre through guava farming

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