Muzaffarnagar: Amid sprawling acres of standing sugarcane crop in western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district, a small but resplendent patch of strawberry plants laden with ripe fruits looks more like a surreal crop circle straight out of Mel Gibson-starrer Signs. As debt-ridden cane farmers in the area continue to wait for their turn at the local crushers or for the payment of their cane dues, 26-year-old Yogesh Saini, a class X dropout who claims to have stumbled upon this idea on the internet, is earning a fortune. Neatly laid-out strawberry baskets coming out every morning from the farm he took on rent and being loaded onto vans have become talk of the town and a ten-fold rise in Saini’s income is drawing other farmers to look for an alternative.
In west UP, farmers continue to be obsessed with sugarcane, a water guzzler, and consider it a matter of pride despite poor payment schedule. Though the crop requires least care, it doesn’t pay more than Rs 20,000 for a bigha.
Breaking off from tradition to grow strawberries, a crop generally sown in hilly regions, Saini, a landless farmer, has earned Rs 3 lakh from his seasonal crop on a 2.5 bigha patch of land.
“I studied about it on the internet and saw a programme on television as well. I read a bit about the local climate all the year round and then thought of trying it out,” Saini, a resident of Bhopa village here, told TOI.
He discussed his out-of-box idea with his father, Gopal Saini, 55, who is a vegetable farmer, and they both decided to give it a try. “My son is a man of bright ideas. He couldn’t study much but has an innovative mind,” Gopal Saini said.
Yogesh’s father used to take farmland on rent to grow vegetables. This time, the two took 10 bigahs for Rs 60,000, which exhausted all their savings. He had to take a loan of another Rs 1 lakh from a local lender to be able to set up his strawberry farm on a 2.5 bigha patch.
Growing strawberries in warm climate of western UP was not easy. Strawberry cultivation requires 16-18 degrees Celsius temperature for the seed to sprout. However, a slightly higher temperature than this allows saplings to grow. Yogesh had figured this out well before he set up the farm.
“I skipped the seed part and sowed the saplings in September. The day temperature of the month is suitable for the saplings to grow fast. I sold my first consignment of strawberries in mid-February. The fruits will keep ripening and earning revenue for me until mid-April,” Yogesh said.
The crop required a few other measures too. He erected a boundary wall around his farm to prevent rodents and rabbits from destroying the crop. Plastic sheets were spread underneath the plants to prevent fruits from touching the ground. Yogesh and his father also had to take turns to maintain round-the-clock vigil at the farm.
Realising the crop’s monetary potential, even other farmers are now approaching Saini for technical know-how.
“Though it requires a lot of hard work in nurturing the crop as compared to sugarcane, but then their earnings are multifold,” said Gyanendra Singh, a farmer in nearby Bhokareri village who visited Yogesh’s farm recently.
“For a number of Jat farmers in the region, growing sugarcane is a matter of pride as well as ease. This experiment has shown us how breaking off from the tradition, we can earn good money,” Anirudh Chaudhry, a local farmer, said.
“It is good to see his crop. He uses least pesticide and the results are amazing. The government should pay some attention to promote this type of farming,” Singh said.
Local fruit vendors have also benefited from Yogesh’s crop. “Strawberries are generally brought from Himachal Pradesh and are often sold at Rs 250 a kg in wholesale market, while it reaches up to Rs 350-400 a kg in retail market. Now, we are buying the fruit for Rs 150 a kg from Yogesh and selling it for Rs 250-300 a kg,” Ansar Ahmad, a wholesale fruit vendor, said.