Farmers in Himachal Pradesh are ditching traditional food crops to grow aromatic plants that offer higher and assured returns
“The people in my village thought I had gone mad when I decided to give up maize and grow wild marigolds in 2017,” says Pawan Kumar, a farmer in Himachal Pradesh. “The rebukes grew stronger when the flowers failed to bloom the first season,” recalls the 45-year-old resident of the backward Talla village in Chamba district that does not even have a motorable road.
Today, Pawan has become a role model for most farmers in the district. He earns a phenomenal Rs 1.2 lakh a hectare — which is roughly five times what he would earn from maize cultivation.
Similarly, Ganesh Prashar from Band Kadian village in Kangra district is reaping the benefits of lemon grass which he started growing just four years ago. “I started farming in one bigha (6 bigha is a hectare) and today I am cultivating 46 bighas. I have also formed a society of 25 farmers, 16 of whom have already shifted to lemon grass cultivation,” he says.
Like Pawan and Prashar, farmers across the hill state are finding refuge in aromatic plant cultivation as income from traditional crops has become erratic primarily due to extreme weather events like hail and frost, and rampant animal attacks.
“Food grain crop has almost lost its relevance and become unviable in lower hills like Hamirpur, Bilaspur, Una and Kangra. In contrast, aromatic plants used for essential oils provide a new hope,” says Tej Pratap, vice chancellor of G B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, Uttarakhand.
The aromatic plants are hardy, less prone to animal attacks and, most importantly, have a huge demand in the perfume, flavouring, and condiment industries.
The domestic industry imports marigold from Australia, France, Brazil and Kenya. The global essential oil market demand is projected to expand at a compounded annual growth rate of 8.6 per cent from 2019 to 2025.
“In just three year, beginning 2017, close to 700 hectares (ha) have been brought under cultivation of aromatic plants. What is even better is that the bulk of this land is wasteland or unproductive farmland,” says Rakesh Kumar, principal scientist at the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research or CSIR’s Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT) at Palampur.
He adds that the state produced 7.6 tonnes of essential oil from wild marigold alone in the past two years. “This benefited 861 farmers who cumulatively earned Rs 5.56 crore.”
Besides training farmers in cultivation of aromatic plants, IHBT has set up 16 essential oil distillation units in the state that are operated by farmers’ cooperatives. CSIR has started the Aroma Mission, under which it plans to expand cultivation of essential oil yielding crops to 5,500 hectares by 2022.
“We have tied up a buy back arrangement with private companies,” Rakesh says. The distillation units are steam-based and run on firewood, which is available in abundance in the villages. The agency also provides the seeds for free.
The main wild marigold-growing regions in the state are Bhatiyat and Salooni villages in Chamba district, Seraj and Gogardhar in Mandi district, Banjar in Kullu district and Rampur in Shimla district, says Sanjay Kumar, director CSIR-IHBT. At the same time, lemon grass has picked up in Una, Bilaspur and Kangra districts, which are in the lower hill regions and have a warm climate.
“We introduced wild marigold cultivations in Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir, but the success rate in Himachal Pradesh is notable,” says Kumar, highlighting the viability of aromatic plants in the state. He adds that the plants can be harvested within three to four months and can be cultivated mono-crop or inter-crop in orchards.
The price they fetch is substantially higher. Pawan says a bigha produces 3,000-4,000 kg of wild marigold. “I get 700-800g of oil for every 100 kg of the flower and a kg of marigold oil fetches Rs 7,000,” he adds.
In the case of lemon grass, one bigha has a yield of 4,500 to 5,000 kg. At the same time, every 100 kg of lemon grass produces 16-17 kg oil that sells for Rs 800 to 850 a kg.
CSIR is planning to promote damask rose in Kangra, Mandi, Kullu and Chamba districts. The organisation’s field results have been encouraging. One ha can yield 2,500 to 3,000 kg of fresh roses, which translate into 625 to 750 g of oil and 1,200 to 1,500 litres of rose water. The market price of rose oil is Rs 7 to 8 lakh a kg while rose water fetches Rs 250 to 400 per litre.
Shiv Kumar Vashisht, a Gujarat-based essential oils trader who buys Prashar’s lemon grass, believes the prices will further increase if the government recognises the farms as organic. Under the current norms, a farm can be called organic after three successive years of standardised testing and certification.
“Most farmers in the state do not use any chemicals to grow aromatic plants. I have got Parshar’s yields checked by a German agency which certified it as organic,” he says.
Kulbhshan Upmanyu of Himalayan Niti Abhiyan, a people’s collective, says the assured high returns that these crops promise can stop the current migration from the state and bring the young back to farming. “This will be a great positive for the state.”
This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 1-15 November, 2019)
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.