Surulipatti: Surulipatti in Theni is known for its Paneer Grapes, a variety of dark purple grapes. The grapes which brought profit to the farmers last year have failed due to drought this year.
“One amongst us is dead. It is only the distributers who are making money. We want a consolidated rate for our grapes”, said Saravanan, a grape farmer.
“We only know to cultivate grapes. We do not know to cultivate any other crop”, said Ponnuraj. The farmers are under debt from both banks and money lenders.
The Surulipatti Grape Association has about 2000 members which includes the labourers. They lost one of its members a few days back as he was unable to repay the loans. Theni has been experiencing drought situation for the past one year.
The Surulipatti grape farmers originally from Mandya in Karnataka settled down in Theni five generations ago. The Vokkaliga Gowdas took up grape cultivation as the place was ideal for the Paneer grapes.
The grape farms are spread across 3000 acres in the Kambam valley. Paneer grapes are grown here predominantly. The farmers also cultivate a small quantity of seedless grapes. The grapes grow over a period of 150 days before they are harvest. There are three harvests in a year and they are grown in batches so that there is a continuous availability of the fruit.
The groundwater levels have gone down which has affected the cultivation of the grapes. There has been less than 10% rain this year. The wells contain very less water. “This year’s yield is a lot less compared to last year’s”, said Gopal, an association member.
Not only dew and lack of water but also pest and diseases like fungicide have affected this year’s yield. Last year Paneer Grapes were sold at a maximum of Rs 100 a kilo but this year’s yield has only fetched them Rs 40 a kilo.
The popularity of seedless grapes from Maharashtra which has flooded the market has not helped the cause of the farmers. “People prefer seedless grapes over Paneer grapes though it has medicinal value”, said Natarajan.
The investment on fertiliser for grapes is high and the farmers spend the funds in getting the fertilisers. Those who own lands get bank loans which they are unable to repay. Banks have only agreed to waive off the penalty but not the interest amount.
A private wine factory which opened near the farms recently buys grapes at cheap rates. “We sell it at Rs 15. We can make profit only if we sell it at Rs 25”, said Venkatesan. They sell their produce for markets in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and seasonally in Kolkata during Durga Puja.
Demonetisation has also added to their misery. ”We are not able to sell the grapes at market value”, said Saravanan. ”Our children no longer want to take up farming. They are educated and want to move to bigger cities. We could be the last generation of farmers”, he added.
Both women and men work in the farms. The men are agricultural labourers and earn up to Rs 400 and the women pick the grapes and earn up to Rs 200.
Manimeghalai, Saravanan’s niece has studied up to 9th class and could not afford to study further. “We are landless and hence labourers, whether educated or not”, she said while picking grapes.