In the drought-prone Sangola taluka of Maharashtra’s Solapur district, a 27-year-old engineer is leading the way in dragon fruit cultivation. Mahesh Asabe has planted dragon fruit over 20 acres of his family farmland and now earns Rs10 lakh per acre in the dry region where agriculture is considered a loss-making proposition.
In 2018, Mahesh completed his BTech from Dr D Y Patil College of Agricultural Engineering and Technology, Kolhapur, and followed it up with an MTech in Food Processing from the Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology, Udaipur.
Coming from an agrarian family in Akola Wasud village, Mahesh had a keen interest in farming from childhood. “My father is a progressive farmer. He planted Apple Ber (also known as the Indian jujube) in 2009 when it was a new crop in the region. Following him, many farmers wanted to plant the fruit. My father began to prepare saplings for them and helped other farmers earn profitably,” says Mahesh.
With this, the thought of experimenting with new exotic fruit varieties took root in Mahesh’s mind. In 2013, when dragon fruit was not very popular in India, he read about it in a magazine.
“I told my father I wanted to grow it on our farm and he agreed. I procured 9,000 saplings of dragon fruit and planted the saplings over 3 acres of land,” he says.
Costs, revenues and profits in dragon fruit farming
Mahesh procured the plants at Rs110 per piece from a nursery in West Bengal. Today, however, dragon fruit saplings can be bought at Rs 25 to Rs30 per plant.
Dragon fruit is a cactus vine and needs a pole’s support to grow on. One pole can support five to six saplings. So an acre requires around 500 poles which can support around 2,000 to 2,500 saplings.
“It is best to opt for drip irrigation as it provides water directly to the roots and results in better yield and growth. Flood irrigation wastes water and leads to weeding,” Mahesh says.
In all, the total initial investment including poles, plants, drip irrigation, labour, and other costs for dragon fruit farming is around Rs5 lakh to Rs6 lakh per acre. “The plant starts giving fruit after 12-15 months. The fruiting season in India is from June to November and harvesting is done six times during this period,” he says.
Dragon fruit output in the first year is around 5 tonnes per acre. The fruit sells at an average of Rs100 per kg, resulting in an income of Rs5 lakh.“Farmers can recover investment in the first year or at the most second year,” he says, adding that the Maharashtra government also gives a subsidy of Rs 1.60 lakh per hectare (2.5 acre) for dragon fruit cultivation.
After two years of planting, the average yield is 10 tonnes (10,000 kg) per acre. With the market rate of Rs 100 per kg of fruit, the revenue generated is Rs 10 lakh (10,000 kg X Rs 100) per acre.
“After deducting annual maintenance expenses of Rs 1 lakh per acre, the profit is Rs 9 lakh per acre,” Mahesh explains.
He sells the fruits in bulk. “About 95 percent of the produce is sold from the farm. The buyers include wholesalers and supermarkets. The fruit has a shelf life of six to eight days after harvest,” he says. Mostly, his buyers are from Sangli, Kolhapur, Sholapur, Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra besides Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Hardy, profitable crop
Dragon fruit belonging to the cacti family requires very little water due to which it is gaining popularity among horticulture enthusiasts. “It does not require water at all during the summer months of March to May, keeping irrigation costs very low. It is a sturdy plant resistant to pests and diseases and can even withstand calamities like drought and storms,” Mahesh points out.
Over the years, he has expanded the area under dragon fruit cultivation to 20 acres where he grows the Jumbo Red, Siam Red, White flesh and Yellow flesh dragon fruit varieties.
The Yellow flesh variety commands the highest rate of Rs 200 to Rs 250 per kg, resulting in a per acre income of over Rs 20 lakh.
“I brought the Yellow Flesh variety from Thailand in 2019,” says Mahesh, who has continued to grow his farming knowledge over the years. In 2017, he was selected for summer training at the Tel Aviv Agriculture University in Israel for 35 days with a scholarship. In 2018, he visited Vietnam to learn more about dragon fruit cultivation and its processing. In 2019, he visited Thailand to learn about newer dragon fruit varieties and cultivation practices.
“In 2020, I visited Oman to promote dragon fruit cultivation in the dry areas there,” says Mahesh, who has set up his export company and ships dragon fruit overseas.
Training and nursery
After his post-graduation in Food Processing (2018-20), the agripreneur has readied recipes for dragon fruit jam, juice, jelly, squash, chips and wine. “We have received the necessary licenses and will launch the food processing unit in June 2024,” he says.
With an increasing demand for dragon fruit saplings from other farmers, Mahesh has set up Rukmini Farms and Nursery.
“I sell the Jumbo Red variety for Rs30 per plant, Siam variety at Rs40 per plant and white variety at Rs15 per plant,” he says.
Mahesh also gives training to farmers. While earlier these training sessions were free of cost, he now charges Rs1,000 to weed out uninterested people. “It is on-field one-day training,” he adds.
So far, around 30,000 farmers have visited the farm and over 500 farmers have purchased plants from there.
From 20 acres, Mahesh earns Rs 2 crore annually. With the food processing unit, his income will go up. “As the area under dragon fruit cultivation increases in India, the market prices may decline. Even if they become half at Rs50 per kg, the income per acre will be still Rs 5 lakh, which is good for a drought-prone region like ours,” he says.
The Sangola Taluka falls in a drought-prone area of Solapur district. The average annual rainfall is less than 500 mm in Sangola and in 2018 it received just 241.6 mm of rainfall, the lowest in 20 years, with only 24 rain days.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)