A privately-held nursery in Chattisgarh is promoting its guava variety with such fervour that soon VNR-Bihi, thanks to its varied qualities, will be the only preferred guava, writes Hiren Kumar Bose
Having brought to the shores of Goa in the early years of 16th century, the Portuguese explorers called it pera. The locals called it peron (Konkani) and as the fruit travelled inland it gathered new names–peru (in Marathi), pyara (Bangla) and amrood (Hindi), as it was called in Persian. Mildly sweet and mellow in taste, the word ‘guava’ is derived from the Arawak name for the fruit, guayaba. Rich in Vitamin C, the guava became a favourite among sailors, often victims of scurvy. In the India of yore, a land known for its mangoes, the new fruit was often compared to the sunshine fruit and called saphari aam (journey mango).
In the five centuries since its arrival guava has become naturalised and presently we have around 30 plus varieties grown in the country. Of which, chief of them are Lucknow 49, the fruits of which are large, roundish in shape, its pulp white, very sweet and tasty; Allahabad Safedas which are round in shape, soft, the skin smooth, the flesh white and possessing a pleasant flavour; and the Allahabad Surkha which has uniform pink fruits with deep pink flesh. Then there are others with names like Anakapalli, Banarasi, Chittidar, Hafshi, Sardar, Smooth Green, Safed Jam, Arka Mridula, Nagpur seedless, Dharwar, Dholka, Kothrud, L-24, L-49, Nasik, Sindh, Allahabad Safeda, Lucknow Safeda, Apple Colour, Red Fleshed, Sardar, Mirzapuri Seedless, CISH-G-1, CISH-G-2 and CISH-G-3.
Joining this babble of Psidium guajava variety in the last couple of years is the ‘jumbo’ guava, called VNR-Bihi. Chances are that you may have seen them being sold by the fruit vendors and even eaten one, having shelled a premium price. In a decade or so it’s very likely that VNR-Bihi might achieve the status what Grand Naine has in the case of bananas, edging out others. The reasons are obvious: it’s relatively large, ranging from 350g to an astounding 1250g (similar to a papaya), has less sugar content than its elder cousins and is sold for Rs 150 a kg!
The man behind VNR-Bihi is Narayan Chawda, a farmer from Gomchi village, situated on the bank of river Kharuna, in Raipur district of Chhattisgarh. A bachelor‘s degree holder in agriculture, he has so far developed over 100 varieties of vegetable and fruit crops in the four and half decade as a farmer. He has several first to his credit: cultivating potato in his region and successfully releasing disease-free potato seed variety; founding Navin Beej Utpadak Sahakari Samiti Maryadit which multiplied acclimatised seeds for Chhattisgarh region and supplying quality seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides at reasonable rates to fellow farmers; introducing farm forestry in Chhattisgarh; a pioneer in adopting drip irrigation and poly houses in Chhattisgarh for vegetable crops; and performing vegetable grafting for research and later successfully transferring the technology for commercial production. For his immense contribution in the fields of agriculture/horticulture, Narayanbhai was conferred with honoris causa or Doctorate of Science by Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University, Raipur.
During his visit to Thailand in 1970, Narayanbhai came across a good guava fruit in a farmer’s field and then forgot about it. Later having seen imported Thailand guava in Mumbai, he was impressed by its shape, size, crispiness, taste, less number of seeds and long shelf life. It was enough to spur the plant breeder into action. He decided on a breeding programme for a guava bearing the characteristics of the Thailand variety while suiting it to Indian agro-climatic conditions and palate in the year 1996. Fourteen years later, he introduced his developed variety to fellow farmers and launched it commercially in 2012. He named it VNR-Bihi. Incidentally, guava is known as Bihi in Chattisgarh.
The flagship company, VNR Seeds Pvt. Ltd. was launched in 1993. Its sister firm, VNR Nursery has one of the largest research land facility in the country, spread across Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka, totaling 92 acres. In 2006, thanks to its R&D activities VNR Seeds was accorded a DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) certification by the Indian Government.
The world at large came to know of the ‘jumbo’ sized guava when VNR Nursery participated in the 2011 Kisan Exhibition, held in Pune. “We brought approximately 6 tons of fruit for sampling and tasting and witnessed such huge rush that our 20 staff members had a tough time controlling them,” says Devesh Shukla, national head, VNR Nursery Pvt. Ltd. “The farmers visiting our stall asked for 4 to10 units of planting material for trial but we had to refuse them as we were keen for such small-sized trials because experience told us that if the plant population were below 450 plants on an acre the farmer did not take it seriously thus affecting the management of the plants.”
Presently VNR-Bihi has 1.2 million plants in farmers’ field, spread across 20 states of India, grown in rain-fed condition, harvested twice a year in the western parts and thrice a year down south, except Kerala.
Most plant breeder or seed companies just provide seeds/plants and leave it to the growers when it comes to deciding on the protocol—from plantation to fruiting stage. But VNR Nursery is unlike others. Asked about the strategy adopted in reaching out to the farmers, Shukla elaborates “Aware that most research benefits do not reach the farmers we have developed a new business model ensuring periodical delivery of technical knowledge and skills to farmers. We have selected fresh horticulture graduates/postgraduates from agri institutions, namely GB Pant Agri Univ, Tamil Nadu Agri Univ and Allahabad Agri Institute and trained them. The orchards under our care with 500 plants or more are assured four free technical visits in the initial two years in order to share latest techniques, providing demonstrations and training.”
In June 2016, staffers of the nursery visited orchards located in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana.
“As the seeds are less it has more pulp. Moreover, its rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, fibres etc and is available in the market for minimum 10 months of the year while the existing varieties are in the market for a bare six months. VNR-Bihi has best keeping quality i.e. 7 – 10 days in normal condition and 20 to a month in the controlled temperature,” claims Shukla quantifying that “if a particular weighed about 500g, one is likely to come across just 20g of seeds.”
Interestingly, the nursery’s website (www.vnrnursery.in) is unlike any others in its genre. It has a package of practices with FAQs and contact details of farmers growing VNR-Bihi facilitating buyer-seller exchange and assisting the search of the local fruit vendor. Farmers growing VNR-Bihi have achieved fruits valued in the range of Rs 2 to 5 lakhs from 450 plants, spread on an acre with 12ft x 8ft spacing, according to Shukla.
The guava orchards are generally attacked by the Mealy Bug which is due to poor hygiene and inefficient weed control beside being struck by the fruit fly. “We insist on the farmers to keep the orchard clean, weed free and use insecticides, only if necessary. The fruits being big we suggest them in order to protect them from birds attacks and fruit fly infestation,” concludes Shukla.
Did You Know: You can induce prolific fruiting in a guava tree by adopting the branch bending technique. Bending of branches invigorates or activates the dormant lateral buds by means of suppressing the apical dominance. Besides, this technique induces more flowering by maintaining higher C: N ratio and stimulating proline biosynthesis under an episode of stress.