Indian farmers feed strawberries to cattle as lockdown hits transport

With supply chain in disarray, farmers are unable to get goods to market. (AP pic)

SATARA: As hundreds of millions of Indians remain locked down to stem the spread of coronavirus, some of its cattle are getting treated to strawberries and broccoli that farmers are struggling to transport and sell in cities amid the three-week lockdown.

Demand for such premium farm produce typically jumps in the summer, but with India’s farm supply chain in disarray, farmers are unable to get goods to market.

The sudden drop in demand is hurting millions of farmers in the world’s second-most populous country, with coronavirus cases surging to more than 1,900 in India, while the death toll rose to 50 on Wednesday.

“Tourists and ice cream producers are the main buyers of strawberries, but there are no tourists now,” said Anil Salunkhe, while feeding strawberries grown in his 2-acre farm to his cows in Satara district, some 250km south-east of Mumbai.

He was hoping to make 800,000 rupees (US$10,600), but now has not even recovered the production cost of around 250,000 rupees, as it has become tough to transport produce to large cities.

Munishamappa, a farmer near India’s IT hub of Bengaluru, dumped 15 tonnes of grapes in a nearby forest after failing to sell them — he had spent 500,000 rupees on his crop.

He had even asked nearby villagers to come collect his fruit for free, but few turned up, he said.

Indian grapes are also exported to Europe, which has sharply cut purchases in the past few weeks as the virus takes a heavy toll there, said Dyanesh Ugle of Sahyadri Farms, the country’s biggest grape exporter.

Growers of expensive flowers such as gerbera, gladioli and bird of paradise, meanwhile, are worried after weddings that typically generate the bulk of demand have gotten cancelled.

“In summer, I sell one flower for 15 to 20 rupees. Now nobody is willing to buy even at 1 rupee,” said Rahul Pawar, who owns a 2-acre flower farm, as he plucked flowers to dump them into a compost pit.

Another flower grower Sachin Shelar says the bulk of his earnings come from the summer season, but sales have stalled during this crucial period.

Ajay Jadhav, who relies on upmarket restaurants to sell basil, iceberg lettuce and bok-choy grown on his three acres, said his fellow villagers won’t take away the vegetables even for free.

“I don’t have a choice but to make manure out of these exotic vegetables,” he said. “Rural folks don’t even know the names of these vegetables. Forget about them cooking these.”