A tapioca farmer is one entity among the pantheon of agriculturists who does not know what the future holds for year after year. This year, thanks to poor rains, it is going to be tough to get even 50 per cent yield.
It is an annual crop whose products like sago, starch and maida are in good demand, mostly in Gujarat and Maharashtra. And, of course, in Kerala tapioca is a staple food as it contains 98 per cent carbohydrates.
Realising the problems that these farmers face, the State government established Sagoserve (The Salem Sago and Starch Manufacturers’ Service Industrial Co-operative Society) in Salem in 1981.
Of the total tapioca area of 82,000 hectares, Salem district has 34,000 hectares. Though Perambalur has almost 50 per cent of farmers dependent on maize and 40 per cent on cotton, a number of them raise tapioca.
But they are still dependent on brokers\merchants and do not have the wherewithal to convert tapioca tubers into sago\starch unlike Salem which has 650 of the total 800 processing units in the State.
“We were getting Rs.600 for a bag of 73 kg (tubers) in 2008-9. Last year it declined to Rs.500 per bag. Now it is hovering around Rs.200-300,” laments R. Perumal, a farmer who has been raising tapioca for decades.
This is a crop which requires considerable manual labour as well. The plants should be watered at least once 15 days. Besides, weed is a major problem and hence manual labour is an important component. Some farmers contend that the cost of cultivation an acre, which was about Rs.20,000 a couple of years ago, has shot up to Rs.40,000 now.
Due to poor rains this year, the tubers have not “matured” at all. “I do not expect more than 75 bags this year against the maximum of 150 bags that we get in a normal year,” says Mr.Perumal.
Officials admit that against the normal annual rainfall of 861 mm, the district has recorded 564 mm so far. The northeast monsoon, which is the mainstay of this region, has also disappointed farmers.
“It is ironical that these farmers were getting higher prices when their cultivation cost was far less. Now the labour cost has shot up virtually by 100 per cent, and the price of fertilizers by 300 per cent. For instance, the price of potash, has skyrocketed from about Rs.250 before April 1, 2010, to about Rs.900 now,” points out Rajachidambaram, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam.
Mr. Perumal adds that the price of products like maida made from tapioca has been going up. From Rs.10 a kg in 2008, it now costs around Rs.40-50 a kg. “But the price of raw material has slumped.”
Hence, farmers demand that they get at least Rs.600 a bag to break even. “Against the current price of Rs.4 per kg of tapioca we should get least Rs.10 to term it remunerative,” they say.
Mr. Rajachidambaram laments that tapioca also does not have any minimum support price. Hence, there is absolutely no guarantee for the farmer.