Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Lesson From Climate Change: Grapes are Sweeter!

Ever since The George Foundation started its operations in 1995 in Tamil Nadu, India, we have been working toward generating internal sources of income to fund at least part of the expenses for our various humanitarian projects. Baldev Farms is one such effort -- to empower poor women who work on our farms, while generating profits. In the initial two years, the farm was growing vegetables - tomatoes, beans, gherkins, etc. We even tied up a marketing arrangement with a French company in Bangalore. Despite high crop output, we couldn't make a profit. For example, tomatoes prices fluctuated between Rs.0.50 to Rs.4.00 per kg every year. One has to be lucky to harvest the crop when the price is high; usually prices are high only when the crop is out of season.

We switched to bananas in early 2000 when the rains were predictable and sufficient. It is one crop that maintains fairly steady prices – between Rs. 4.50 and Rs. 5.50 per kg most of the year (though prices haven't risen in these 6 years). The fact that bananas are the poor man's fruit was an added attraction. We knew that it needs plenty of water daily. Hence we joined forces (technology transfer) with Natafin (an Israeli company) to find ways to reduce the need for water. The techniques used were drip irrigation, mulching, compost (which holds water), and use of "good" bacteria. With these, one acre required around 7,000 litres of water daily. That quantity of water is only 1/3rd to 1/4th of what is usually given under flood irrigation (without drip -- 28,000 litres). Yet we were getting excellent quality bananas, with bunch weight mostly between 25 Kgs and 35 Kgs.

With nearly 200 acres of land under cultivation, the daily need for water was still 1.4 million litres. Since there are no rivers around, we drilled dozens of ground wells for water. We thought we could capture sufficient rain water each year to recharge the underground water. A check-dam was built, and nearly 100 collection pits were made. But with rain shortages in almost all the years since 2000 (30-60% less than the average rainfall in previous years), we were experiencing significant declines in ground water levels. We laid pipelines for a distance of 7 kms from wells in a dry lake-bed elsewhere, but this was still not enough.

Finally in 2006 we decided that we couldn’t wait any longer for a favorable climate change. If we are to believe in recent climate forecasts based on global warming, the chances are that rains will only decrease over the coming years. We decided to switch over to grape vine.

Vine is a semi-arid crop. It doesn't like much water. Watering once or twice a week is enough . Again, with drip, proper mulching and compost, water consumption can be kept to a minimum. If it starts raining as it used to 10 years ago, our vineyard will be in trouble!

So here it is. For us, grapes are sweeter than bananas. We are switching from a poor man's crop to a rich man's crop. While there is no revenue for the next 3 years until fruiting starts, we expect that grapes will soon cover some of the costs incurred for our other projects, and still employ lots of people. May be, we will get into the liquor business one day to help the poor! But it is no easy task. Vine requires lots of care -- grafting, pruning, etc. Diseases, termites, rodents and birds are problems to handle. Hopefully it is still a wise strategic decision not to fight mother-nature.

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1 comment:

joe said...
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