Flavour of Guavas

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!

Narayan Chawda

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.

DSCN2008“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.


India’s Chilli Man

Dr Gaddagimath has dedicated his life to making your life spicy, by that I mean pungent. A plant breeder of international repute he has ushered a revolution in chilli cultivation writes Hiren Kumar Bose


Curiosity, that’s not the right word. Serendipity would be more appropriate to mention my introduction to the world of Capsicum annum L. The botanical name of Chilli Peppers. Or what we all know as Mirchi.

Having read that one Dr S C Kamte was hoping to make around Rs 3.5 lakhs, two years after he had planted Moringa of a hybrid variety on his one acre land at Hattarawat in Chikkodi taluka of Karnataka, I tracked down the man who had advised the principal of Belgaum-based Shaikh Engineering College to adopt the ‘tree of paradise’ as a crop—Dr Nijagunadev Basayya Gaddagimath, Managing Director, Sarpan Hybrid Seeds and was immediately ushered into the ‘fiery and intriguing’ world of chillies.

“Culturally people are not too accepting of planting Moringa. Ask a farmer to plant them and he is likely to consider you to be a fool,” says the fifty-plus Dr Gaddagimath, a renowned plant breeder internationally known for his extensive research on chilli and capsicum while speaking to me on a late night call from Dharwad, where he resides and also has his laboratory-cum-seed company.

Against the expected 150 to 200 pods per tree, Dr Kamte gets about 400 to 450 pods and the number is likely to increase once the trees attain maturity. With the prevailing basic price of Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 for a kg of drumstick, he expects Rs. 3 lakh to Rs. 3.5 lakh in just one year. The fruits of Sarpan SD-2, a Moringa variety developed by Sarpan seeds are 30-45 cm long. Fleshy, they possess soft seeds and have a unique flavour. Its pith is more and very tasty too. A heavy bearer, its fruiting starts 5-6 months after sowing. Its peak blooming / fruiting season is during December-January while May-July is considered its shy bearing season.

A farmer needs at least 8 acres of land to earn the kind of income from other commercial crop such as sugarcane. Dr. Kamte’s total investment was less than Rs. 15,000, which included his share towards drip irrigation and about Rs. 500 for 250g of drumstick seeds.

…   …  …

Founded in 2004 SHS (Sarpan Hybrid Seeds), the Dharwad-based family-owned company had its initial avatar in Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre and in the last 25 years has evolved over 500 promising hybrids in the field of vegetable crops, pulses, oil seeds and annual flower crops, both of national and international importance.

But chilli continues to be the muse of Dr Gaddagimath, endearingly called Niju, by friends and family.

It was at SHS that the novel hybrid seed production technology of seeds using male sterile lines was established and later stabilised. Today male sterile lines in all 32 global morpho-groups have been established at SHS which is likely to cater to the needs of future markets. More than 800   diverse male sterile lines have so far been developed here.

“We have attained national and international fame in research in this crop. Large germplasm, genetic stocks amounting to over 14000 are being maintained by us,” says the alumnus of University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad.

The few promising chilli breeds of SHS which has found favour among horticulturists are Sarpan 45, 90 and 92 and 92-Super 95,102 and 487, especially for colour oleoresins and are at par with internationally known Byadagi chilli of Dharwad. While Sarpan Dandicut, 246, Redbull and 92 Delux are grown not only for high colour but also capsaicin needs—a maiden attempt of  a true matching F1 hybrid in all quality parameters of Byadagi which fulfills the needs of the market and value addition industries. Research work on high colour oleoresins chillies is of immense value.

Many may not be aware that the pungent component of chili peppers, Capsaicin has long been used as a topically applicable cream for the treatment of diverse neuropathic pain disorders.

“There is a waiting period of 10-12 years to develop and commercialise an F1 hybrid while uncertainty dogs research outcome and results. We have developed F1 hybrid chillies, which are considered best in the world with the highest colouring unit of 502 ASTA (measuring unit of colour – American Spice Trading Association unit),” claims Dr Gaddagimath.

Hybrids with high colour low pungency, high colour high pungency are for industrial high value products, namely capsaicin for pharmaceutical needs and natural colour for commercial use in various food, meat, pharma, confectionary, textile and cosmetic and other allied industries. The most significant determinant of the quality of paprika powder is the content of colouring matter. The extractable colour of paprika is usually expressed in ASTA colour value or in Colour Units while the spiciness or hotness, referred to as pungency by scientists is measured according to the Scoville scale. The pigment content increases as the fruit ripens and continues to sink in the fruit after maturity.

Sarpan Chilli 487 holds the topmost rank in the world for its ASTA colour value of 502 and followed by Sarpan 102 with Sarpan 92Super with 300 and 350 ASTA respectively. Mexican chilli Numex Garmet-1 is nowhere close with a colour value of merely 302!

Chilli being the focus of the company, Dr Gaddagimath says, “We are working on 32 chilli segments namely Paprika, Cayenne, Tabasco-Piri Piri-Bird Eye Chilli, Anaheim, Fresno, Jalapeno, Pimento, Bell Peppers, Santaka, Habanero, Colour Chillies and chillies for canning industries etc. In our chilli varieties, rain-fed yield is around 900 to 1300kgs/acre of quality dry fruits, in irrigated conditions it is 1500-2000 kgs/acre of quality material under Cayenne/Paprika segments and 2500 to 3500 kg/acre dry fruits of high quality under Santaka/ Guntur/Sanam chillies. Moreover, our seeds are tolerant to major pests and diseases, have 90% germination, flower and fruit early (55-60days) and are uniform in size at harvest.”

Its latest cutting-edge product, Sarpan Dandicut is a high value product as the fruits can be harvested without the plant stalk unlike other chilli varieties. SHS is in the process of transferring this character into other varieties like Byadagi and Jalapeno chilli.  Presently grown in Bellary in 5.5 acres Dandicut has received highest appreciation from growers and the market.

De-stemming is a labour intensive procedure performed in industrial yards, as well as in APMC sheds in filthy environment exposing the labourers to heart and lung diseases and even allergies. Sarpan Dandicut is likely to be a boon in this regard. The debris arising from de-stemming, amounting to over 50,000 MT can now go as organic matter into the soil and not to municipal garbage dumps, an attribute which Dr Gaddagimath considers as “the biggest value addition made by technology.”

SHS has identified two regions in North Karnataka, namely Kundagole in Dharwad district and Anthoor and Benthoor in Gadag district which is conducive to growing export quality chillies.

States namely Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the main markets where Sarpan hybrid chillies are widely grown. The districts in Maharashtra, namely Sangli, Kolhapur, Satara and Pune have found favour with Sarpan Chilli hybrids. Farmers in Golapur of Rajgurunagar, Pune district have been growing Chilli SH 60 in 100 acres since last five years and had a yield totalling 20 tonnes green fresh fruits per acre.

Success stories of farmers like Prakash Mali of Shirol in Kolhapur district who grows the Sarpan Hybrid 92, a Byadgi variety, has had a bumper crop of green chilli (4 tonne per acre) fetching him a price between Rs 10 to 25 per kg while red chilli with an output of 400 kgs fetching Rs 300 per kg has led his neighbouring farms to try their hand in chilli growing.

In 1937, Hungarian scientist, Dr Szent-Gyorgi, won the Nobel Prize for discovering that paprika pods were one of the greatest sources of Vitamin C, even richer than the better-known citrus fruits.  Chillies are an excellent source of Vitamin, A, B, C and E with minerals like molybdenum, manganese, folate, potassium, thiamin, and copper. In fact, chilli contains seven times more vitamin C than the orange. Among the rice eating communities in India chillies are a must as it breaks the carbohydrates and accelerates digestion.

Many are wary of chillies, thanks to its pungency and prefer not to bring it anywhere close to their mouth. Only if chillies could be sweet.

A chilli which a child or your 80-year-old grandparent too could relish? A sweet chilli, perhaps. A paradoxical proposition.

That’s what Sarpan Hybrid Seeds has done. Developed sweet chilli varieties like Sarpan Madhu, Sarpan Kesar, Sarpan Haldi, Sarpan Cherry and Sarpan Bullets which come in various colours. “We have successfully removed the spicy flavour and made it sweet so that all age groups can relish it,” concludes Dr Gaddagimath adding “without  affecting in  any way its inherent nutritional properties.”




Cuckoo’s Nest

Ask me what are the joys associated with farming and you’re likely to be at the receiving end of a verbal volley by an otherwise taciturn individual. I can go on endlessly telling you about watching a seed spring its ears, hearing the chatter of birds come to get their share of mulberry, catching a glimpse of the long-tailed pheasant crow alighting from a tree to settle around a bush to pick an insect, glancing the early morning dew shining as pearls on the broad shoulders of a banana leaf, stepping barefoot on the moist grass on a November dawn, lying on my back on a January noon watching the clouds being chased in the cerulean skies……………..

But during my latest visit, I chanced  on something which I had never witnessed before: a nest settled on a growing banana bunch. On coming across I shouted at Mangal and he told me it was a nest of a bird, called Pavsha or Common Hawk Cuckoo which frequents our mulberry trees. As the bananas mature the chicks will come out and soon fly out deserting the nest.


Better Call Mr Ash

Ever since I began farming I have insisted and told my man-Friday Mangal: Don’t ever burn.
And he has never done otherwise.
wood ash
While my neighbours have continued burning leaves, twigs and branches my farm has never witnessed a matchstick being struck. However, my recent readings have made me realize that most of the organic materials used in making compost do not have adequate amounts of potassium. Forcing me to rethink my strategies.
Wood ash has a good amount of potash and that’s why it is recommended for incorporation into the compost. One can add ash after every layer of compost to ensure that the trace elements in the ash are incorporated into the soil. When added to compost, ash can also help neutralise acidity in the compost as it is more alkaline in nature.
Ash is composed of many major and minor elements that trees need for growth. Since most of these elements are extracted from the soil and atmosphere during the tree’s growth, they are common in our environment and are also essential in the production of crops and forages.
Calcium is the most abundant element in wood ash and gives ash properties similar to agricultural lime. Ash is also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. In terms of commercial fertilizer, average wood ash would be about 0-1-3 (N-P-K). In addition to these macro-nutrients, wood ash is a good source of many micronutrients needed in trace amounts for adequate plant growth. Wood ash contains few elements that pose environmental problems.
Nitrogen fertilizers often lower the soil pH, which makes neutralizing agents such as lime or wood ash a necessity.
Sprinkled lightly about susceptible plants, wood ashes will irritate slugs’ moist bodies and repel them. The repellent effect will disappear after rain or irrigation dissolves the ashes
Ash from charcoal is not beneficial as it has some chemicals that may be present in high concentrations.

http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=B1142;/https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/2279e/ http://theorganicfarmer.org/content/importance-ash-compost\ http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/wood-ash-can-be-useful-yard-if-used-caution

Finding Ukshi

As you engage into new things you become privy to newer experiences, exposed as you’re to a world unknown to you till very recently. That world holds new promises, newer perspectives. Your engagement with this ‘new’ world opens you to virginal excitements. Of having come to know things though commonplace  but now novel and holding some promise.

ukshiI realized this fact ever since I became a bee-keeper. Looking for the source of pollen and nectar I started studying the neighbourhood flora, and during one such field trip I came across Ukshi. That’s what Mangal identified the plant as such.

Ukshi (calotropis floribunda) is a large climbing shrub found extensively in the low-lying tropical evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. Its young branchlets are dense with yellow short soft hair. The leaves are arranged opposite, egg-shaped to narrowly elliptical, entire and dense with yellow short soft hair, particularly below.

Ukshi flowers are bisexual and yellowish-green in colour. They bloom between February and March. As the flowers store nectar they are favourite among bees. Come daylight swarms of bees descend on Ukshi flowers.

I am told that Ukshi is revered as a life-saver by the forest dwellers who regularly depend on it during summer when streams dry up. Sections of the vine store water, which people often use to quench their thirst.


Mulberry March


mulberryThe mulberry tree flowers almost simultaneously as the mango. i.e. around second-or third week of February but fruits much before the ‘sunshine fruit’. By mid-March, the pale red fruit turns deep black and is ready to be plucked. Delay picking them up you may lose them to the birds, a favourite among the two-footed winged creature.

All day long birds frequent the mulberry chirping, snapping at the fruit and then flying away. But it’s in the evening when the sun is homebound they arrive in swarms, like the commuters in Mumbai trying to board the suburban locals. And leave after having their dessert.

mulberry 1Chattering, chirping their tiny wings flapping they descend on the thin branches, choosing their position they tear away the fruit with their beaks while letting many to drop on the ground. Like choosy shoppers who wouldn’t buy a good-looking tomato or apple, the birds they rarely pick the fallen fruits believing in the philosophy of ‘let others have it too’, leaving it for the insects.

Mulberry, known as tooti in Marathi and shahtoot (King Mulberry) in Hindi, has a cousin which is green in colour and is grown in the Northern parts of India. Once grown abundantly you could find them  sold in dona (cups made of leaves) in the village market but getting a glimpse of the fruit nowadays has  become a rarity.

An excellent shade tree, my friend SS tells me that during the summer months he often found his landowner uncle sprawled on  his khat (string charpoy) under a shahtoot tree in his native village, close to Jaipur. Visiting farmers from the neighbouring bera (hutments on agricultural land) sat underneath for a chat while the pet dog slept.

Picking the fruits can be a laborious task and it’s advised to spread a sheet below and shake the tree vigorously. Adivasis in Jharkhand, a friend tell me, use medicated mosquito nets given by State’s health officials to collect jamun and mulberry instead of sleeping under them.

Shahtoots are good for health and have the same benefits as other mulberries, being rich in antioxidants; flavonoids and what researchers believe are anti-cancer agents.

Last Sunday I brought home nearly 2kgs of mulberry home and by evening wifey turned them into jam. Though it was her maiden attempt she succeeded.  The next morning it was the turn of the smoothie while overnight the fruit stayed in the fridge.

Did you know that you can also get multiple crops by pruning immediately after your first crop?  I had a crop in October and again enjoying one in March.

Bee My Guest

Life does spring surprises from places you least expect it from. This ‘surprise’ happened in early January and I remembered it today while I was going through the image on the album of my phone camera. That Sunday morning I was overjoyed on seeing a swarm of wild bees hanging from the branch of my cashew nut tree.
honeyIs it really happening, I asked myself?
“Was it there when I came last?”
“No it wasn’t.” said a confident Mangal and asked with caution: “Sure it won’t bite,”
“Only if you disturb it,” I replied.
Standing below the tree it I could hear them buzzing, as if hundreds of machines were whirring, far away.
These were giant bees (apis dorsata) or Indian rock bees. Apis dorsata are slowly disappearing, thanks to human interference. They are the only wild variety among the four species of bees found in the country. Apis cerana, Apis lorea and Melipona irridipennis (dammer bee) are the other three. Unlike other honeybees, Indian rock bees never settle down in an area polluted by air or sound. They help in pollinating flowers on tall trees, like coconut. When their natural habitat is disturbed, they move to tall trees or vacant buildings in human habitations.
Rock bees create colonies below rock cliffs and trunks of huge trees (like they had in my farm), usually inaccessible to people. They are a dependable source of honey, which is in good demand.
As I left for home at around noon I prayed that they remained. However, next day Mangal called me saying the rock bees had left.