Watermelon thrives in temperatures higher than 250C and prefers low humidity conditions. This, along with the fact that it is relatively easy to grow, makes it the ideal choice of fruit to be grown during the warm summer months. The soaring temperature in the Indian summer coupled with the high water content of the fruit automatically makes it a naturally demand-led commodity that is relished for its ability to quench thirst and refresh the senses. Compared to chilli or tomato, watermelon commands a higher price during the summer months, enabling the farmer to rake-in more from its produce. The adage ‘make hay while the sun shines’ aptly applies to watermelon cultivation.
The eastern state of Jharkhand was not particularly known for watermelon production until this year. Water scarcity, poor knowledge of best farming practices, absence of interaction with farmers of other cities, and lack of market linkages made it challenging for farmers to think beyond what they were currently doing.
Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), a nodal agency of the Tata Trusts, through its livelihoods initiative, have been working closely with the farming community in Jharkhand, besides Gujarat, Maharashtra and Odisha. Under its Mission 2020: Lakhapati Kisan programme, CInI is working in the four states, understanding their challenges and identifying opportunities for enhancing farm revenue. They found that the Murhu block in Jharkhand, had the potential to cultivate watermelon and emerge as a role model for others to follow suit. In 2019, they designed a multi-pronged strategy for four blocks in Jharkhand, involving innovation and knowledge sharing, and paired it with rigorous implementation. Awareness was created through pamphlets, and farmers were trained in watermelon cultivation.
To ensure optimum growth and productivity, the plants were grown initially in a polyhouse nursery. To tackle the requirement of water, the Trusts introduced diversion-based irrigation and facilitated the farmers in tapping into seepage wells and perennial water resources. To conserve water and energy, the Trusts encouraged the farmers to set-up drip irrigation systems running on solar energy, and deploy the technique of mulching. Around 30 per cent of the cultivated land was brought under drip irrigation. Farmer beneficiaries actively participated in experience-sharing, travelling from nearby towns to the Murhu block to inspire the local farmers.
Totally, 897 households played an active role in this initiative across four blocks of Murhu, Churchu, Tundi and Dhalbhumgarh. As a result, the total area under cultivation in Murhu increased to 196 acres – four times that of the previous year. These blocks saw an unprecedented growth in watermelon production, with Murhu contributing to 60 percent of the yield. On an average, each plant produced 2-3 fruits. The total sales of the fruit weighed-in at 1,722 tonnes, the highest-ever in the region. While watermelon as a fruit allows even individual farmers to sell their produce, to handle the enormous volume, marketing was done through large organised channels such as the Future Group of companies and Farmer Producer Companies (FPCs). The farmers’ cumulative income as on May 17, 2019 skyrocketed to Rs1.29crore, averaging Rs7,500 per tonne. In order to ensure the safe loading and transportation of truckloads of watermelons, the packaging had to be innovative and strong enough to protect the fruits.
It is anticipated that the innovation and best practices deployed in watermelon cultivation will also bear encouraging results in the cultivation of kharif crops such as chilli and tomato. This initiative has ticked several checkboxes such as the product being marketable and demand-led, innovation in farming techniques, and linkages with FPCs – in short, all the principles of the Lakhpati Kisan programme.
"The organisation helps us by marketing and selling our watermelon crop, because of which we get better rates than trying to sell the fruits ourselves.", says Alma Tiru, a watermelon farmer in Murhu, Jharkhand.
The multiple initiatives under this watermelon cultivation and marketing programme address the following United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs):
Going forward, with the possibility of increased production, the Tata Trusts will look at improvising the packaging for transportation, and replicating the initiatives in other locations. Similar work has already begun in one block in Odisha, and such success stories are anticipated from other regions.