Cool bounty from Himachal hothouses

Until a few years ago, monkeys and pigs destroyed everything the farmers grew in the villages around Jubbar Hatti, 25 km from Shimla. Today the same farmers earn big money from growing exotic vegetables like bell capsicum or carnation flowers, but inside a cluster of polyhouses spread across five panchayats in a 25,000 sq m area. Offering safety from animals and untimely rains, polyhouses can come up even on very small holdings, and the government offers subsidy too. Ram Gopal, President of the region’s Marketing Cooperative Society, says that after unsuccessfully trying various methods to save their crops and livelihood, the farmers hit upon the idea of polyhouse farming during a visit to Shimla’s horticulture department. In fact, a polyhouse yields more produce than a same-sized land holding. Moreover, as the region has no extreme climates, the polyhouses here don’t require temperature regulators. Ram Gopal and a few other farmers underwent training at Pune and set up their polyhouses with the help of bank loans and government subsidy. In less than five years, Ram Gopal has constructed five polyhouses of different sizes (mainly growing bell capsicum, cucumber, and carnations), repaid Rs 13.5 lakh loan, renovated his house and bought a car a few months ago. “I earned more than Rs 1 lakh on a single day from my red bell capsicum produce, which fetched over Rs 260 a kg, even though this variety is usually priced Rs 105 to Rs 110.” Attracted by such success, 37-yearold Praween left his technician job at Ambujas to take up polyhouse farming. Today he has half-a-dozen polyhouses ranging in size from 50 sq m to 350 sq m. “I am earning at least two to three times the salary I got at the Ambujas,” he says. Several unemployed youth in the area have decided against migrating to cities for jobs and instead set up their own polyhouses, also called modern greenhouses. “What has really drawn them to polyhouse farming is the fact that it requires much less hard work and they can put their education to use here,” says Praween. The local Marketing Cooperative Society currently has 39 members and 20 share holders. Kamal Kant Mehta, the latest to join the group, has started growing tomatoes in 560 sq m polyhouses. The society is constructing a cold storage facility at a cost of Rs 7 lakh, prompting the farmers to diversify into experimental cultivation of iceberg lettuce, leek, broccoli and lillium flowers. According to a study by Nabard Consultancy Services (NABCONS), polyhouses in Himachal Pradesh yielded three to five times more vegetables than open farms. Under traditional farming, one acre can generate an estimated annual income of Rs 20,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh. Depending on the crop — cereals, vegetables or fruits — annual income from similar-sized polyhouses is estimated at Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. Additionally, income can be generated round the year through multiple crops, including off-season vegetables, which fetch premium prices. Official figures show that Himachal Pradesh’s annual output of off-season vegetables has touched 1.4 million tonnes, generating a turnover of about Rs 2,500 crore. There is potential for even greater growth as only around 10 per cent of the cropped area currently grows off-season vegetables. Polyhouse cultivation started in Himachal Pradesh in 2009 under the Kisan Bagwan Samridhi Yojana. Today, with an eye on the countrywide market for off-season vegetables, the State government has enhanced its subsidy for polyhouses to 85 per cent under a Rs 100-crore YS Parmar Kisan Swarozgar Yojana. The target is to construct 4,700 polyhouses measuring 83.535 lakh sq m. Training is mandatory under the four-year scheme aimed at increasing vegetable production, raising farmer’s income and creating employment opportunities for over 20,000 people. n

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