With an increase in demand for strawberries in Northeast India, Dolly Kikon and Dixita Deka attempt to understand what it takes to grow this short duration crop. Read an excerpt from their book Seeds and Sovereignty: Eastern Himalayan Experiences.
Bringing together farmers, activists, knowledge keepers and students, Seeds and Food Sovereignty: Eastern Himalayan Experiences was a result of attempting to facilitate new ways of learning together. Published by North Eastern Social Research Centre (2023), it draws attention to the commodification of seeds, the need for local seed banks, and captures the stories of community custodians of food and indigenous food practitioner.
In this chapter, Strawberry Farms: Adopting New Crops in Northeast India, the authors shed light on the strawberry boom in Northeast India, and also highlight a changing pattern of crop selection, food choices, and livelihood opportunities in the eastern Himalayan region.
Read an excerpt from this chapter:
Country roads, take me home,
to the place I belong…
Singing and playing John Denver’s popular country song on his guitar, Mrinal Rabha kept recording videos from his strawberry farm in Assam during the pandemic in 2020. His desire to become a strawberry farmer (while keeping his music career on track) was driven by his spirit to experiment to try out something new.
The pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 took young Mrinal back to his ancestral land in Goalpara district of Assam. When he thought about ways to doing something ‘useful’ with the vast track of land in his village, he remembered conversations with his friends about strawberry as a lucrative crop. Almost with zero idea about farming or growing strawberry, he started by looking up workshops and training videos on YouTube. “I did not know anything,” he told us when we visited his strawberry farm in Goalpara. Gradually, he started the strawberry garden, and began talking to the people in the village.
Then, he imparted training on techniques of cultivating the new crop. For Mrinal, it was also first attempt at farming anything at all. He believed that involving the villagers in his new agricultural pursuit was crucial as they shared intimate ties with nature and held rich knowledge about the land and soil. As a full-time music teacher at a reputed private school in Guwahati, Mrinal spent the next two years 2020 and 2021 imparting online music lessons to his students from his car enroute to Goalpara or under the shed of his strawberry farm.
When the lockdown was lifted towards the end of 2021, he returned to his strawberry farm every weekend. He said, “I would miss the plants. And especially during the fruiting season, I was unable to sleep in Guwahati. I would think of the strawberries. It was like an outstation working parent eager to meet the children.”
Mrinal began to feel that his strawberries were like his children. He wanted to be there and hold them when they were ripe. After he encountered strawberries, Mrinal became a caring farmer—someone who was concerned about the plants—a trait that was not there before.
As he has become well-versed with its seasons, excited about the saplings, he has also developed new concerns. He said that he thinks about questions such as, “How are they (the strawberries) growing? Is the red colour good enough? Bright enough? Are the plants free of disease?”
In February 2022, when we visited Mrinal’s orchard located some 140 km from Guwahati, there were 50,000 plants. As we strolled along the garden asking Mrinal about the plants, he was talking to us but also keeping a loving and watchful eye on the plants. He would bend down, touch the strawberry plants, remove weeds, touch the fruits and examine them. Aware that we were watching him, he smiled and said, “Strawberries need a lot of care and attention.”
His relationship with the village and his perception of land transformed. As a professional singer and a music teacher living in Guwahati he was never fascinated or drawn to the rural countryside. In relation to land and farming, earlier he had never planted any plant or shown any desire to be associated with farming. Growing and caring for the strawberries felt like finding a reason to live with a purpose and be connected with land. A physical and material entity whose potential was immense and could configure and transform the lives of the villagers and younger generation.
In the last two years, the strawberry farm has also become a popular site for families and children from the village to drop by. When we were at the farm, a small boy, around 5 years old, came by with his father. Mrinal told us that he was the youngest customer. After tasting strawberry last year, the small boy always begged his father to take him to the strawberry farm to get some more.
Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra is known as the strawberry basket of India. The experience of plucking strawberries from farms has become a way of attracting tourists from the city who wish to escape the urban life during weekends. Besides Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, and the Northeastern states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram are always featured as the highest producers of strawberry in India.
During our initial fieldwork on new crops, we learnt from strawberry farmers like Mrinal that the market demand for strawberries across Northeast India is extremely high even though many farmers are yet to adopt it. There are implications and risks in adopting crops like strawberry that require close attention and care. The probabilities of pests and fungus are high. The crop requires extreme care while packaging and transporting. Therefore, popularity and acceptability of new crops does not mean farmers are eager to start growing it immediately.
Agricultural scientists like Himadri Shekhar Datta are encouraging farmers on the ground to consider strawberry. Datta teaches in the Department of Horticulture at the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) in Jorhat. He is passionate about strawberry and is an advocate for this new crop. He believes that it can be an attractive option for farmers if one is able to devote time. He also explains how strawberry is a short duration crop.
Datta is writing his doctoral thesis on strawberry and carried out his experiments at Pankaj Chetry’s land in Dhankhuloi, Jorhat. Pankaj who is a dairy farmer also adopted strawberry after Dutta came to his land and experimented with the fruit. It was a comprehensive project to trace the beginning of a place. From the process of germinating the plant, planting strawberry seedlings, and finally finding a market for it.
In Assam, October-November are considered as the best planting season. Within fifty days flowering starts and the plants bear fruits within the next two months. One plant can bear up to one kilogram of strawberries in a season. The best season to harvest strawberry remains between January and April, or until the rains begin and the temperature soars.
Explaining his decision to carry out his strawberry experiment on Chetry’s farm rather than opting for an institutional orchard at the Assam Agricultural University, Datta said, “If the farmer is involved in the process, he will understand the technology and its dynamics. It will be scientific and he will be able to observe the plant as it grows and shall know when to check for any damage or disease. I did not use any kind of chemical fertiliser but vermicompost.
Since Pankaj Chetry is a dairy farmer, cow dung was available. I did the cultivation in such a way that it covered from production to marketing, including labelling and packaging. I focused both on cultivation and marketing. I explored the market in 2019 initially, and later when people got to know that Pankaj was growing strawberry, they called him and placed orders. So, he is selling his strawberry at his dairy outlet near Jorhat and even sends it to the town. Even though my experiments are over at his farm, Pankaj continues to grow strawberry.”
Strawberry, according to Dutta, has a potential more than being an attractive crop alone. Even though the initial investment in terms of seedlings, mulching paper, raised beds, and drip irrigation is high compared to other crops, returns are quick and profitable. There is also a gender dimension here. Many farmers believe that their family members—males and females—can be involved in the strawberry cultivation. Women are mostly involved in weeding, spraying manure, and plucking and packaging the strawberry. Many women farmers are also starting their own strawberry farms on their lands.