Veggies delight

The rising demand for vegetables has opened up a money-making opportunity for small farmers. Already reeling from recurring droughts and declining productivity of staple crops, they are enthusiastically turning to these short-duration crops. In a couple of years India has become the second largest producer of vegetables. This is a green revolution the government did not sponsor. But with vegetables driving the agriculture growth, the government cannot afford to ignore it anymore. Richard Mahapatra analyses the prospects and challenges, while Alok Gupta reporting from Jharkhand and Sayantan Bera from Sikkim chronicle the transition

By Richard Mahapatra, Alok Gupta, Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Veggies delight

Ram Oraon blames his grandfather for his frail health and for much of his life spent battling poverty. He has watched his two brothers die young. “They always had poor health,” says the 60-year-old marginal farmer from Malhan Bhuiyadih village near Ranchi. Over the years, Oraon has realised the reason for his family’s sufferings. “Like other farmers in my village, my grandfather would grow rice and potato, and we would eat mostly that. He never saw profit in vegetable, nor was he aware of its health benefits,” he says. Though late in his life, Oraon has done a course correction. About a decade ago, he shifted from the staple crops to vegetables. Showing off a basketful of freshly plucked brinjals from his farm and a bundle of notes, Oraon says, “Now we are healthy and a bit wealthy.” This holds true for most families in his tribal village now.

Lured by a booming vegetable market, farmers of Malhan Bhuiyadih and several other villages in Ranchi have dumped paddy and other staple crops for growing the greens. The district now supplies vegetables to flood-prone Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha, and has earned a new distinction: the vegetable basket of Jharkhand.

“By growing vegetables, the tribal population is not only earning a handsome profit, lately they have also started regularly including the nutritious greens in their diet,” says Shivendra Kumar, head of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Eastern Region, in Patna. Ramesh Sharan, professor of economics at Ranchi University, says vegetable is the new economy of the drought-ravaged state.

About a decade ago, farmers in Malhan Bhuiyadih grew vegetables and paddy in the ratio of 40:60. “Now, we grow paddy only on 25 per cent of our land,” says Haldar Mahto, Oraon’s neighbour. The Economic Survey of Jharkhand shows some 80,000 hectares (ha) have been brought under vegetable cultivation in the last decade. In 2000, vegetables were grown on 150,000 ha. There has also been a drastic change in the agricultural employment pattern. While in 1983 vegetable farming employed very few farmers, it now employs 2.3 per cent of the state’s farmers.

Traders from as far as Delhi throng the state’s rural weekly markets to procure vegetables. To harness the potential of the new economy, traders in the state are dema nding a special train to ferry vegetables to far off cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai.

India follows Jharkhand’s trajectory in vegetable farming. Farmers from across the country, particularly those in drought-prone regions, are waking up to the potential of the crop that has been traditionally considered a riskier proposition due to a shorter shelf life. In the process they have earn ed India the status of being the world’s largest vegetable producer after China.

What prompts the switchover
Popular perception is that farmers shifted to vegetables only in the past four years to exploit the price rise. But the trend has been around for nearly a decade. States like Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha that witness frequent droughts reported the first significant switchover.

Those who observe farmers at close quarters say the shift is a coping mechanism in the face of frequent monsoon failure and prevailing agrarian crisis.

 “Since 2000, drought has been regular in several districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These are the districts where most farmers have resorted to vegetable cultivation,” says Sanjay Singh, a social worker in Jhansi.  In 2010, faced with six consecutive years of drought in the Bundelkhand region, the Madhya Pradesh government called a special session of the Legislative Assem bly to discuss ways to make farming profitable. One of the key strategies was to increase the area under vegetables by 500,000 ha. In 2012-13, the state received an award from the Centre for the highest growth in vegetable production in the country.

“Farmers will do what will help them earn a bit more,” says Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairperson of Bharat Krishak Samaj, a farmers’ association. “Growing vegetables is the most profitable proposition available now, especially for small and marginal farmers.” What is also pushing farmers to switch to vegetables is the shrinking farm size. The average agriculture landholding in the country in 2010 was 1.22 ha. It was almost double (2.28 ha) 40 years ago. Staple crops like wheat and paddy are less productive and thus less profitable when grown on small farms. In such a situation, a farmer can increase yield only by using high-cost farm inputs. Besides, cereal crops require assured irrigation. Given that 60 per cent of India’s farmland is rain-fed, farmers are not willing to take the risk.

In 2007, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relation (ICRIER) did a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of growing vegetables among other horticulture products. It found the shift to horticulture was faster in recent years due to declining benefits from cereals. For each unit of investment in vegetables the return was alm ost double; returns were half for cer eal crops. “This implies it is profitable to cultivate fruits and vegetables rather than cereals,” ICRIER report concludes.


Change of taste
What came as an opportunity at the right time was the changing food preferences of people. Consumers now prefer vegetables and other high-value commodities like fruits and livestock products to cereals due to rising income and changing lifestyle.

Periodic surveys by the National Sample Survey Office show a clear shift from food grains towards fruits and vegetables, livestock products and fisheries. These are the products responsible for the high and persistent food inflation in the past five to seven years. Yet their share among all food items consumed remains high: 47.4 per cent in 2007-08, up from 41.3 per cent in 1993-94 and 37.3 per cent in 1983-84. Between 2005 and 2010, vegetable consumption alone went up by 30 per cent in urban areas and 40 per cent in rural areas (see ‘Rise in consumption’ below). 

“The agriculture sector is responding to the change in overall consumption pattern,” says M S Sandhu, director of the Department of Agricult ure, Punjab. Fruits and vegetables now contribute more than 30 per cent to the value of overall agricultural output in states like Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and northeastern states, according to the National Horticulture Board.

Small and marginal farmers contribute to 70% of vegetables produced, while they own just 44% of farmland

That farmers are preferring vegetables over other crops is also clear from the farm employment data. Anjani Kumar of the National Centre for Agricultural Econo mics and Policy Research (NCAP), New Delhi, says while more people are engaged in agriculture, there is a significant diversification within the sector. Employment in staple crops has gone down and that in horticulture, which includes vegetable farming, is picking up. The share of horticulture in crop sector employment was 1.9 per cent till 1993-94. It reached 3.5 per cent in 2009-10, despite it being a severe drought year. This year, its share is expected to rise to five per cent.

This increase in share, Kumar’s study shows, is mostly because of small and marginal farmers.

Boon for small, marginal farmers
Dismayed by erratic monsoon and uncertain returns from staple crops, particularly paddy, small and marginal farmers across the country have found refuge in vegetable farming.



They contribute 70 per cent of the total vegetable produced in the country while they own just 44 per cent of land, says a report of the Planning Commission Working Group on Horticulture.

Mahendra Dev, who has studied changing cropping pattern in India, explains this anomaly. Small and marginal farmers are increasingly using part of their land for vegetables as the costbenefit calculation favours them. The cash return on vegetables is frequent and even more than on fruits, the other profitable horticulture crop.

Ecology and economics of vegetable cultivation support this transition. On an average a farmer needs one cubic metre of water to produce 330 grams of grains. The same quantity of water is sufficient to grow about 18 kg of vegetables. Besides, paddy takes more than 100 days to mature and the yield is uncertain. It also requires bigger land for better profitability. Small and marginal farmers can use their small pieces of land to grow four to five crops of vegetables in a year.

Unlike the price of cereal crops that is determined by market forces, Haldar Mahto says “we dictate the price of cucumbers and tomatoes we grow”. A farmer can sell his/her crops in the local market every week. In case of paddy, they had to wait for close to four months in hope of better returns.

Little wonder that vegetables, clubbed under horticulture, now drive the country’s agriculture growth along with livestock. While production of rice saw a negative growth in the 2000s, the Planning Commission estimates show that the growth of vegetable production has been consistent: 0.49 per cent in 2007-08, 1.69 per cent in 2008-09 and 6.4 per cent in 2010-11. In 2011-12 its growth came down to three per cent. Yet it was the highest and three times more than that of fruits. Though
land under vegetable has not grown much—115,140 ha has been brought under vegetables across the country in the past five years—its production has soared by 65 per cent between 2001 and 2011 (see ‘Production booms’). The average yield per hectare has also increased: from 12.2 tonnes to 16.7 tonnes (see ‘Productivity grows too’).


“Vegetable production is growing the fastest among all horticulture wings. This is a trend that will decide the overall agricultural growth,” says Sanjeev Chopra, director of National Horti - culture Mission and joint secretary with the Union Ministry of Agriculture. The Union government now pins its hopes on vegetables to achieve the four per cent agricultural growth target during the 12th Five-Year Plan.


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  • A very insightful report on

    A very insightful report on vegetable farming in India. Both government and private companies need to make more investments in this sector by developing food processing and supply chain infrastructure. Then every citizen would have access to healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Right now most people suffer from vitamin deficiencies due to inadequate fruits and vegetables in their diet. And the sad fact is that even if you go to a market in Mumbai to buy a regular fruit like apple, you are only offered overpriced varieties from Australia instead of native varieties from Indian states like Himachal Pradesh.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very interesting article with

    Very interesting article with insightful statistics. It was heartening to note that the vegetable consumption of the farmers themselves has grown. This trend, I wish, must be consciously highlighted through the producer-farmer community to the extent that only after the own or nearby community's requirements are fulfilled, the farmers will sell the excess produce in market. This in turn will reduce the load on various systems such as transport, cold storages and free the farmers from market exploiting them.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Investment in cold storage

    Investment in cold storage does not answer problems in many cases as seasonality in several vegetable crops has largely been overcome through research.It is freshness of veggies that fetches high price and profit. A quick and safe transport to advantage market is better solution. We need investment in rural haats where even best quality harvest is marketed in harsh weather condition and bulk produce handling system is pathetic. Bio-diverse vegetable farming is a big upcoming market and health opportunity but at present lesser known veggies have restricted market.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Also, Organic farming is the

    Also, Organic farming is the need of the hour as the effects of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on our health is a major concern.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • It will be worth examining

    It will be worth examining the role of Private sector vegetable varieties vis a vis Public sector varieties in the new revolution described in this interesting article. When profit is the driver food and nutritional soveriegnity may take a back seat.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very interesting article. We

    Very interesting article. We work with tribal farmers in UP and thus understand the potential of horticulture in terms of nutirtion and cost benefit. The data and statistics provided in the article will be very helpful for guiding more people to adopt this. I also like the comparison part of water consumption connection. One side when this is positive sign for small farmers, I wonder why government policies do not support farmers for grain production. Production of grain is also equally important aspect of our agriculture.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations to the

    Congratulations to the farmers for bringing the change in vegetable production (Veggies delight DTE, April 15 2014) which has improved their health and wealth. Storage facilities are the real barriers in gaining the maximum benefit from their production.

    Though this shift is giving the benefit, still for better sustainability on long run attention is require for the following measures such as:

    1. use of heavy chemicals in various forms
    2. soil pollution
    3. water pollution both surface and groundwater
    4. health of the farmers from chemical pollution
    5. loss of soil fertility
    6. loss of advantages of shift agriculture
    7. reduced production (60% to 25 % of paddy and other cereals
    8. imbalance in diet systems
    9. challenges of malnutrition
    10. other consequences.

    Though the shift is welcome from the farmers side, there is a need to balance the production keeping the need so the local people.

    With this pattern of balancing,farmers can do wonders to improve the their health & wealth as well as environment with improved sustainability and quality of life.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Once there was interest in

    Once there was interest in HYDROPONICS in India. Even Today in the west Hydroponics is popular.

    Hydroponics is a subset of hydro culture and is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Terrestrial plants may be grown with their roots in the mineral nutrient solution only or in an inert medium, such as perlite, gravel, mineral wool, expanded clay or coconut husk.
    Researchers discovered in the 18th century that plants absorb essential mineral nutrients as inorganic ions in water. In natural conditions, soil acts as a mineral nutrient reservoir but the soil itself is not essential to plant growth. When the mineral nutrients in the soil dissolve in water, plant roots are able to absorb them. When the required mineral nutrients are introduced into a plant's water supply artificially, soil is no longer required for the plant to thrive. Almost any terrestrial plant will grow with hydroponics. Hydroponics is also a standard technique in biology research and teaching.

    Some of the reasons why hydroponics is being adapted around the world for food production are the following:
    ÔÇó No soil is needed for hydroponics
    ÔÇó The water stays in the system and can be reused - thus, lower water costs
    ÔÇó It is possible to control the nutrition levels in their entirety - thus, lower nutrition costs
    ÔÇó No nutrition pollution is released into the environment because of the controlled system
    ÔÇó Stable and high yields
    ÔÇó Pests and diseases are easier to get rid of than in soil because of the container's mobility
    ÔÇó It is easier to harvest
    ÔÇó No pesticide damage
    ÔÇó Plants grow healthier
    ÔÇó It is better for consumption

    Today, hydroponics is an established branch of agronomy. Progress has been rapid, and results obtained in various countries have proved it to be thoroughly practical and to have very definite advantages over conventional methods of horticulture.
    There are two chief merits of the soil-less cultivation of plants. First, hydroponics may potentially produce much higher crop yields. Also, hydroponics can be used in places where in-ground agriculture or gardening are not possible.

    Some commercial installations use no pesticides or herbicides, preferring integrated pest management techniques. There is often a price premium willingly paid by consumers for produce that is labelled "organic". Some states in the USA require soil as an essential to obtain organic certification. There are also overlapping and somewhat contradictory rules established by the US Federal Government, so some food grown with hydroponics can be certified organic.
    Hydroponics also saves water; it uses as little as 1Ôüä20 the amount as a regular farm to produce the same amount of food. The water table can be impacted by the water use and run-off of chemicals from farms, but hydroponics may minimize impact as well as having the advantage that water use and water returns are easier to measure. This can save the farmer money by allowing reduced water use and the ability to measure consequences to the land around a farm.

    To increase plant growth, lighting systems such as metal-halide lamp for growing stage only or high-pressure sodium for growing/flowering/blooming stage are used to lengthen the day or to supplement natural sunshine if it is scarce. Metal halide emits more light in the blue spectrum, making it ideal for plant growth but is harmful to unprotected skin and can cause skin cancer. High-pressure sodium emits more light in the red spectrum, meaning that it is best suited for supplementing natural sunshine and can be used throughout the growing cycle. However, these lighting systems require large amounts of electricity to operate, making efficiency and safety very critical.

    The environment in a hydroponics greenhouse is tightly controlled for maximum efficiency, and this new mindset is called soil-less/controlled-environment agriculture (CEA). With this growers can make ultra-premium foods anywhere in the world, regardless of temperature and growing seasons. Growers monitor the temperature, humidity, and pH level constantly.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply