It was sometime in 2012 that a friend gifted me a Dragon Fruit plant after I had shared with him a bunch of freshly harvested dates,” says Rajendra Deshmukh of Barshi village in Solapur. “Then a sapling would come at a princely sum of Rs 250.”
A follower of multi crop pattern Deshmukh’s 32-acre farm, few kilometres from Barshi station, has custard apples, date palms, jamuns, guavas and dragon fruits—all prospering in this arid zone which barely receives 350 mm of rain.
A visit to dragon fruit farms in Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam in 2018 along with a group of farmers from Pune, Satara , Sangli, Aurangabad and Solapur gave Deshmukh the confidence to take up dragon fruit farming seriously. Presently, he has six acre devoted to the fruit.
“Having I got some eight cuttings from Vietnam I multiplied it and have around 2400 plants which grow supported by cement pillars,” says Deshmukh whose 200-odd date palm orchard brings in farmers from drought prone and arid zones namely, Gulbarga in Karnataka, Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra’s Osmanabad, Beed, Amravati, Wardha, Yavatmal, Jalna and Nagar, all trying to emulate his example.
From the eight cuttings acquired in 2018 Deshmukh has developed 1200 plants which populate his sprawling orchard. He also has hundreds of them in his nursery.
The Vietnamese call dragon fruit “thanh long”. Native to Mexico, it’s the French settlers who imported it to Vietnam and called it “pitaya”. The dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) is a tropical fruit that belongs to the climbing cacti (Cactaceae) family that grows in arid areas. Widely cultivated in Vietnam, the fruit is popular in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. Broadly speaking, the weather in Vietnam is dictated by two seasons — the southwest monsoon from April to September and the northeast monsoon from October to late March or early April.
This fruit of a vine-like cactus has white flesh peppered with tiny edible black seeds. Its popularity is growing beyond metros to other cities, particularly in south India. Its import is rising multifold while farmers in India too start growing it large numbers. “Imports of dragon fruits have increased by almost 20 times in past two months, bringing down the wholesale prices from Rs 350 per kg to Rs 100,” said Dinesh Shinde, a leading importer of fruits from Vashi APMC in Mumbai.
There is a general belief that dragon fruit doesn’t do well in rain-fed areas. Says Deshmukh. “One should visit Vietnam to know that’s not true.”
The mean annual rainfall in Vietnam ranges from 700 to 5,000 mm (28 to 197 in) although most places in Vietnam receive between 1,400 to 2,400 mm (55 to 94 in). The majority of rainfall occurs during the rainy season, which is responsible for 80%–90% of the annual precipitation. Today dragon fruit are the leading fruit export of Vietnam and clever Asian marketing may have had something to do with the emergence of the fruit from obscurity.
The colour of dragon fruit flesh varies in variety from white, to red, or deep magenta.Like tomatoes, the red fleshed varieties contain lycopene – a natural antioxidant known to fight cancer, heart disease, and lower blood pressure. Lycopene is the focus of much recent research for its connection with anti ageing and UV skin protection.
Most dragon fruit growers grow it alongside the four sides of a squarish concrete pole with a circular frame—known as chakra—on the top to hold the extending branches. Though Deshmukh initially erected a a traditional but has now abandoned it going for just a pole which has brought down the cost of the same to Rs 700.
Come the rain showers of July dragon fruits start flowering and the fruit is harvested every 15 days which continues till November. What’s the agronomic practice does he follow growing it on a six-acre plot?
“The orchard is drip irrigated. But in February I stop irrigating it till June,” says he. “The only fertiliser given is composted cow dung. For pest prevention, one needs to drench the soil with Chlorpyrifos (1ltr for an acre.)”
He receives 400 fruits per acre which attract a price between Rs 40 to Rs 150 per kg depending on the size and quality of the fruit.
Ask him if there is a secret for a good yield?
”More branches mean more fruits,” he signs off.