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From free to Rs 120/kg: How to prevent tomato crisis from hurting farmers, consumers

The solution lies in building an information system that brings assurance to the entire supply chain

Aruna Urs  |  Mysore 

Tomato price jump multi-fold due to crop damages

When make it to the news, it is mostly for the wrong reasons. The pictures of dumping the produce have now been permanently etched into our memories. Instances of households and restaurants cutting back on were rare and brief.  As India reels under a severe tomato crunch, I am one of the very few who are cashing in on this nationwide crisis. For over three weeks now, mandi rates at Mysore for a 25-kg box of have never fallen below Rs.1300.

Rollback to April, things were very different. I sold 100 boxes of for Rs.64 each and then I was forced to abandon the standing crop as prices failed to cover even the harvesting and transportation cost. The seeds of today’s crisis were sown then as many switched to other crops. 

It takes about 100 days from the day a farmer decides to plant to the first harvest. And depending on the weather and pest outbreaks, the produce will be picked twice or thrice a week for up to ten weeks. Compared to just a few years ago, cultivation practices have improved vastly. Disease resistant hybrid varieties, breakthroughs in crop protection chemistry, the advent of mulching sheets of various colours to suit the seasonal temperatures and easy availability of water soluble complex fertilisers along with drip irrigation has revolutionised horticulture. Progressive in many states are recording yields on par with their open-field counterparts in Australia or Brazil. This is especially true in About 5000 plants can be raised in an acre and depending on the season, yield will be anywhere between 25-40 tonnes.

Unfortunately, it is more luck than acumen that makes or breaks a farmer’s fortune.  It need not be this way. If the data on sale of tomato seeds were available real-time in April, there would not have been such a shortage. The go to variety for in Karnataka during summer is Syngenta’s TO-1057. It comes in 10gms packaging and is sufficient for half acre. If sale of seeds were monitored and forecasting of arrivals after 100 days would have showed a serious drop in volume. This information alone would have triggered many to plant and the crunch that the country is now in, would be less hurting to consumers. And if the same data were available in January this year, would not have dumped in April.  

The need of the hour is information. Information on seed sales, cropped area, weather, plant health and arrival forecast. Weather plays such a critical role in deciding yield outcomes yet its monitoring and forecast have not kept up with changing times. Fluctuating weather conditions are detrimental to plant health. Hot days followed by moist and cooler nights are a nightmare for tomato as it is a perfect condition for timber rot to spread. The whitefly attack on Punjab and Haryana’s cotton crop in 2015 is a classic case. The hot and humid weather that persisted for over a week was the sole perpetrator of that devastating attack. 

The blame certainly lies with the governments for not investing in technologies to monitor exogenous factors like weather. Even Karnataka, which was the first state to establish a drought-monitoring department in 1988, has only 917 telemetric weather stations. Our taluk has three such stations but it is barely enough. Rains are increasingly becoming localised, two villages barely 5kms apart have recorded different rainfall patterns this monsoon. The claims settlement on crop insurance schemes is going to be problematic in future without accurate data. 

What Indian needs is injection of certainty to end this vicious unpredictability. The only metric available for a farmer to take a cropping decision today is the prevailing mandi prices and a good amount of guesstimate on future arrivals. Let alone the farmer, even the ministry’s crop production estimates are, more often than not, inaccurate. 

need certainty in the form of information that can make it easier for them to plan. To my utter surprise, I found that the all stockists of seeds report their inventory holdings every month to the district office. There is already a mechanism, what it needs now is application of minds to build an information system that brings assurance to the entire supply chain. The path to prosperity starts with collating the data and disseminating it widely. This is the first step in ensuring that a farmer can confidently look forward to an income at the end of the cropping cycle. And this certainly is not a difficult task.
Aruna Urs is a resident farmer at The Takshashila Institution. He tweets as @arunaurs 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Wed, July 26 2017. 10:00 IST