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Kerala farmer's intra-crop coffee variety vows more income to struggling rubber growers

Antony wants growers to use his discovery as a means of permanent income and not just to supplement their dwindling rewards from rubber because of higher cost of production and low prices.

August 06, 2022 / 10:22 AM IST
According to Antony, about 1,500 to 1.800 coffee saplings can be planted in an acre of rubber plantation.

According to Antony, about 1,500 to 1.800 coffee saplings can be planted in an acre of rubber plantation.

Roy Antony, a farmer from Wayanad in Kerala, is delighted that an arabica coffee plant variety he developed is being sought by the ruler of Abu Dhabi for planting in his farmhouse.

Named Roys Selection, his coffee plant has become a big draw in the last few years as news of its utility as an inter-crop in rubber plantations spread among planters.

“For the farmhouse in Abu Dhabi, they want 3,700 seven-year old arabica plants that have started bearing fruit for making their favourite coffee. There are no rubber plantations there but they are planning to create a cool atmosphere for the ideal growth of the plant," Antony told Moneycontrol.

The farmhouse is sourcing coffee as well as other plants from different parts of the world. Antony is happy that the kingdom has gone for the farmer's variety of coffee from India and plans to provide it at a minimum payment.

"This order is like an award for my coffee," he said of the first purchase order he has received from outside the country.

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Antony, who is in his late 40s, wants growers to use his discovery as a means of permanent income and to supplement their dwindling income from rubber because of higher cost of production and low prices.

The discovery

About a decade ago, Antony had stumbled upon this arabica coffee plant growing in shade under the trees in his coffee plantation in Gudalur in Tamil Nadu at a time inter-cropping among rubber trees was being actively discussed to enable the grower to earn more income.

As it was giving a good yield in the shade, Antony decided to try it as inter-crop on his rubber plantation at Pulpally in Wayanad. The attempt was a success.

The uniqueness of this coffee plant is that it needs 30% to 80% shade for growth, provides yield from the third year and grows to a limited height. All these features make it ideal for cultivation as an inter-crop among rubber trees. It can also be grown as an inter-crop among other fruit trees that provide a canopy of shade.

coffee

Unlike many other coffee plants, this variety has tap root and not fibrous ones. Hence it needs less area for growth and can flourish in water-scarce regions.

“The manure applied to the coffee plant can also benefit the rubber trees which may not need any additional application, thus saving money for the rubber grower,’’ Antony said.

Benefits to growers

Yet another feature of the variety is that it is more disease-resistant than several other arabica species. Besides, the rubber grower need not spend money for weed removal in the rubber estate as the Roys Selection plant prevents the growth of weeds by spreading out.

In Karnataka, the coffee hub of India, arabica plants vulnerable to pest attacks are giving way to sturdier robusta coffee plants at many places.

The rubber grower benefits because arabica fetches a higher price than robusta coffee, which accounts for nearly 70% of coffee produced in India.

According to Antony, about 1,500 to 1.800 coffee saplings can be planted in an acre of rubber plantation.

“One plant yields a minimum of 1 kg of coffee after the third year, which means the grower will get 1,500 kg or more from an acre. Considering the arabica coffee price of Rs 120 per kg, the rubber grower earns Rs 1.5 to 2 lakh, in addition to his income from rubber.’’

Antony, who has rubber, pepper and coconut plantations apart from coffee in Wayanad, says that it is difficult to survive with income from rubber estates alone in future.

“We have to think of inter-crop not as a temporary but permanent income. Rubber replantation is slowing down in Kerala while it is fast spreading in northeastern states,’’ he said.

No middlemen, please

Antony has started a nursery for supplying saplings as he doesn’t want middlemen diluting his plant varieties. Many rubber growers from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Assam apart from some corporate entities reach him directly to buy Roys Selection.

Because most of the purchases were made in the last two to three years, only a few have reached the fruit-bearing stage.

Elias Joseph has grown about 1,400 Roys Selection plants in his rubber estate at Kanjirappally in Kottayam district. “I planted them in last October and the growth is good so far,’’ he said.

He has a scattering of robusta coffee plants in his estate, grown by his father. They have grown so tall that he has to use a ladder to pluck the berries. If not plucked at the right time, birds feed on them or the ripe berries fall off and start sprouting from under the plant.

Roys Selection grows to about the height of an average person after two levels of pruning, making it comfortable for plucking berries standing on the ground.

Aspinwall group has planted Roys Selection in 10 acres of its rubber plantations in Pullangode Estate in Nilambur.

“We have about 10,000 plants in the estate and it has been only over a year since we planted them. We enquired about it and decided to try it,’’ said Renny Antony, manager.

Government support

Travancore Rubber and Tea Company is another corporate entity trying out the coffee variety in its rubber estates. The Kerala government is growing Roys Selection plants at State Farming Corporation rubber estates in Kollam district on the recommendation of the Kerala Agriculture University.

Even Rubber Board is conducting trials with it in Ranni in Kerala.

“Though many growers are planting it as an inter-crop, we have not reached a stage where we can recommend it to the farmers. It has been only two years and we are still evaluating it,’’ said Jessy MD, director of research at Rubber Board.

Rubber Board has been recommending robusta coffee and cocoa as inter-crops because usually arabica is grown in higher elevations. Cauvery hybrid arabica variety did not enjoy much success as an inter-crop in rubber plantations. Even robusta is not finding many takers.

Unless it is a coffee developed by them, government bodies like Coffee Board normally do not certify a variety developed by a farmer, Antony said.
PK Krishnakumar is a journalist based in Kochi.
first published: Aug 4, 2022 12:35 pm
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