On the sloppy hills of Athikkayam in Kerala's Ranni, KS Joseph stood thinking. A banking veteran, it didn't take him long to analyse the futility of planting more rubber trees on his rocky land. The soil would stunt the growth of such trees that need large quantities of water to flourish, he decided.
Joseph knew his land demanded a low-maintenance crop that can survive the challenging geography and the hot Kerala summers. An active search followed and led him to an exotic species of cactus with aerial roots and nocturnal flowers. Four years down the line, after planting 200 saplings on an experimental basis, Joseph today supplies over two tons of the fruit every month through the season at the rate of Rs 200 per kilogram. His four acres of land now have 12,000 plants...
The hero of Joseph's farmland is known by many names -- dragon fruit and Kamalam being the most popular among them. The brightly-coloured giant fruits can remind you of lotus petals or the scales of a mythical creature. What arrived at the field of this post-retirement farmer as an experiment has turned into such a winner that Joseph is an ardent advocate of dragon-fruit farming and believes it can be a true game-changer.
"We had about 600 kg freshly plucked fruits in stock during the triple lockdown. We feared the worst but at a slightly reduced price, every last one of them was sold. The demand is so much that supermarkets have started pre-booking. They even send transportation to pick them up," he said.
With night-blooming flowers that are hermaphrodites (male and female organs in the same flower), dragon-fruit pollination is speeded up by nocturnal agents like moths as well as by bees in daytime. Abundantly cultivated in the American continent and in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, the fruits become harvest-ready 30-35 days after flowering with each weighing around 200 to 700 grams. Studies show the average yield can be up to five tonnes per acre.
The plants start flowering by mid-April. Another month needs to pass by before the fruits start to grow. By the end of October, flowering will gradually stop although they will continue to yield fruits for another month.
On Joseph's farm, the fruits are sold in boxes of five kilograms each with supermarkets being the major buyers. A variety named "American Beauty" (Hylocereus costaricensis) that is bright beetroot-red inside is grown on a commercial basis here with the oldest ones being four years old. Plants as young as six to eight months have started blooming, Joseph says, although they are said to take a full year.
"The lifespan of each plant is said to be 25 years. It has not been that long since these have reached our country. A fully grown plant will give no less than 15 fruits a season and they will reach this stage in three years. Most plants will start bearing fruits within the first year," Joseph said.
No water, please!
Here is a fruit that can be consumed even by diabatic people. Rich in antioxidants, dragon fruits are believed to be good for the liver and heart too. Largely tasteless with a tinge of sweetness towards the middle, the seedy fruits are pulpy if consumed raw. There is an increasing market for milkshakes made with them as well.
Coming from a family of desert plants, dragon fruits demand little or no irrigation. "A lot of sunlight and wind are necessary. They are so cost-effective because you don't need to water them regularly or use pesticides," said the farmer, who uses only dried cow dung as manure on his lands. No chemical pesticides are needed for their health and cow dung or ash, which are cheaply available for farmers in Kerala will do just fine, he said.
Irrigation and fertilisers aside, soil complexion is vital among the factors that affect yield. Joseph planted the saplings only half a feet deep into the ground. Since dragon fruits have aerial roots, soil content and humus concentration become secondary to their growth.
"If they can grow on these rocky mountains, they will grow in other places too. If you can manure them at proper intervals, the results will show" the farmer said.
Initial costs involved
Dragon fruit orchards demand initial investment as they are grown on a trellis. These structures need to be strong as two or three saplings are grown around the same trellis and the plants can weigh several hundred kilos when fully grown. Joseph has installed over 3,000 concrete poles that stand over four feet above the ground to which the plants are tied. This is done using thin biodegradable threads rather than plastic or iron rods as the plants can easily break free of the knots while growing.
Four protruding iron rods support the old bike tires on their top which will help the plants to spread themselves independently without crowding over one another. The more sunlight and wind each stem receives, the better the pollination and yield. The retired assistant bank manager approximates the amount spent on each plant to be around Rs 1000.
Where to get the plants?
After each flowering season, branches of the plants are chopped down retaining just one layer. Pruning is important as fresh stems ensure good fruits, according to the farmers. The cut-down stems are later used to grow saplings -- each 10 inches long.
Presently the flashy fruits are grown in pockets across Kerala. Its popularity is slowly on the rise. Joseph sells saplings at Rs 200 apiece and offers to help interested cultivators in any manner he can.
Now, govt support available
Here is one more reason to love dragon fruit orchards. Kerala's State Horticulture Mission had recently included the giant among 10 fruits selected for promotion under the Centrally assisted Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) of the National Horticulture Mission (NHM). Under the MIDH component, the assistance is for a total of 250 hectares of dragon fruit with an outlay of Rs 75 lakh.
WATCH OUR VIDEO STORY ON DRAGON FRUIT FARMING HERE: