Friday, 13 July 2012

July 4 - 11 Incredible India

In recent years there has been a lot of activity in the Indian date industry. India is a large global importer of dates - approx 250,000 metric tonne annually however it has a very small production base. This is perhaps surprising given the large western desert region adjoining Pakistan. An initiative by India's oldest company Atul Ltd in a joint project with the Rajasthan Government is changing this. They have established a tissue culture lab and nursery at Jodhpur and established commercial plantations and demonstration sites at strategic locations.

Atul Ltd were honoured for their development project in 2009 when they were awarded the Khalifa International Date Palm Award which was recognizing the merit in this project. Atul also own DPD Ltd UK (Date Palm Developments) whom we have been a customer of for the last 12 years.

Atul were agreeable in hosting me for a few days. My Indian adventure began with flying from Muscat to Doha and then onto Delhi before a domestic flight to Jodhpur. This is a desert city of approx 1.5 million people. I was met by Atul staff and taken to see their tissue culture and nursery facility. This photo: Me with Atul staff in Jodhpur.
I was soon to learn how many similarities there are between the Indian and Australian date industries. Like us, their major impediment to industry growth has been a lack of suitable planting material with which to establish plantations. Atul together with the Rajasthan Government has identified this, formed a funding partnership and built a world-class, high capacity date palm nursery facility. They have also set up a commercial plantation which serves as a variety trial site as well as an educational demonstration site to encourage other growers to participate in the industry.

I could really relate to this project as we are doing exactly the same in Australia - the major difference being the State Government of Rajasthan were supportive of this project which accelerated growth. Whilst we have received some good support from our Federal Government, at this stage our SA State Government has passed up the opportunity to co-contribute in the Australian date industry development project. The Rajasthan Government recognizes the vast economic and employment opportunities being created by this partnership.

The new Jodhpur tissue culture lab is fantastic. Everything is state of the art with solid quality assurance procedures in place. The outplanting and nursery area function well with good plant number turnover due to the demand from farmers. This facility employs leading technicians for every aspect of producion. They also fly in experts from other countries to provide further depth of competency.
Next morning we met with a local Jodhpur farmer who is growing several varieties and getting amazing growth rates. We spent the afternoon driving deeper into the great Indian Thar Desert some 260km towards Bikaner. This desert country still gets some effect from the southern monsoon season - receiving 200-300mm but only in the wet season. For the rest of the year white sands remain parched. There is some vegetation growing 3-4m tall but trees and shrubs are generally sparse.
Unlike other deserts this region is well populated. Life is hard here but there are lots of enterprising people trying to make a living. Everyone is happy to see us.
Roads are busy with trucks, cars, tuk-tuks and motor bikes............

 ...........then there are cattle, goats, sheep, camels and dogs which seem to spend as much time on roadways as off.

Of course cattle in particular are a sacred species so freely roam as they please. They can often be seen living carefree lives resting in the middle of major motorways or in and around shops etc. They are accustomed to being driven around and seem to know they have right of way.
Atul has established a plantation near Bikaner (population 1 million). These are mostly 2 yr old tissue culture palms, several varieties we also have at home. The palms are growing very well, even faster than ours. Water supply is good quality and the winter months are moderately warmer than the Riverland, making for better growth rates.
This site also services local growers from around Bikaner to showcase date production. This photo: at Atul, Khara Bikaner Date plantation. B.K.Maheshwari, myself, Dr. Muhammad M. Khan.
We then visited a private plantation where the farmer is cleverly intercropping with pomegranates which although young are starting to bear fruit. This system allows cashflow to begin at an early stage while waiting for the longer term date palms to commence. At this site palms are planted with 8m x 8m spacing so the intercrop system does restrict machinery access but has substancial benefit in creating an early income stream.
Pruning knife
The next day we headed toward Jaisalmer and visited a very impressive date palm commercial cultivation project of the Government of Rajasthan. It must be recognized this is a new crop to this region so I give the Rajasthan Government very high marks for this initiative. Their aim is to create economic and employment opportunities for the local people.
Palms at this site are 3 years old and already some have given a light crop with promising results. Judging by the visitors book I signed, there's lots of interest in this project from all over the world. They are also soon to build a Centre of Excellence where local farmers can be trained in the management process of growing their crop. We spent the night at Jaisalmer, a further 300km beyond Bikaner and only 100km from the Pakistani border. Here the rainfall is even less - maybe only 150mm per year. Current temperature is 40 degrees Celsius.

Next morning we looked at another private grower's organic plantation where he intercrops between the date palms with limes, gooseberries, chinese dates, gumball fruit, cucumber, aloe vera and peanuts.This is a very diverse and dynamic property. He is also constructing a hotel to cater for agri-tourism. He already receives many guests to look at his farming operation. We later drove another 6 hours back to Jodhpur. This photo: Chinese Dates growing alongside date palms.
Next day I flew to Mumbai to meet with Atul staff at the main corporate head office. Leaving behind the dry western desert, a 2 hour plane flight later I was in Mumbai at monsoon season time. This is a lush rainforest/agricultural area supported by approx 2500mm annual rain. The monsoon season although late, had broken. After exiting the airport we drove 3 and 1/2hours through tropical rainfall to the town of Atul. This photo: monsoon season in Mumbai.
The company Atul Ltd which had its beginnings in the textile and coloured dye industry employs so many people it now sponsors a whole town of around 1100 houses - schools, medical centres, banks, sporting facilities and even has its own train station. I was accommodated in one of their guesthouses.
The General Manager of Business Development, Dr Batra, provided me with the background of this amazing company which is India's oldest company. It is now diversifying into agriculture including the date and banana industries. This photo: from the desert to the tropics - superb gardens at the Atul Ltd guesthouse.

The next day we drove 300km to look at date palms. Now anyone worldwide who knows anything about date cultivation knows you need hot, dry conditions with very little rain - so I was more than curious to see what is being attempted at a commercial plantation in this environment.

Our first stop was a farmer who had some years earlier established a plantation from seedling palms which he germinated himself, so there were no known varieties. I was surprised to find a good amount of fruit on the trees. All of the fruit had successfully reached the khalaal (semi-ripe) stage of maturation. We taste tested many of these seedling varieties and some were quite good. Amongst internationally known date varieties there are perhaps only 2-4 which are commercially sold at this khalaal stage because unlike other varieties, the fruit is sweet and without objectional astringency.

This farmer is selling some fruit from his seedling varieties for local consumption and he may well have discovered a new variety suited to this location. In my mind he has importantly demonstrated it is possible to produce khalaal dates that can be harvested before rain spoilage associated with the start of the monsoon season. This opens prospects for growing the world famous variety Barhee for fresh khalaal dates. This variety is traded in huge volumes but I am unaware of any production occuring anywhere else in the tropics.

This farmer has also interplanted with mangos and coconuts. It is the first time I have seen tropical species and date palms lined up next to each other quite like this. Then back in the car and onto the next stop. Another farmer has planted tissue cultured Barhee and other varieties which are now 2 yrs old. Although fruit production is probably 2 years off, if successful, this will change all perception of date cultivation and open up enormous possibilities to grow dates in tropical parts of the world. I will follow this one with keen interest.

We drove back to Atul town for my last night in India. I'm very grateful to Dr Batra and the entire Atul team who showed me around for these few days. From the time I was collected from the airport at first arrival in Jodhpur and dropped at the Mumbai airport to depart, I would like to thank you all for your fantastic hospitality. I had a very enjoyable trip and learned heaps. I hope to continue to hear of future successes in growing The Blessed Tree. This photo: Here I am at the Gateway to India.
Famous India Sun temple
Colourful street scene

Full house aboard the Flying Queen. Delhi – Mumbai service
My next stop is the United Arab Emirates - beginning to count down the final days of my Nuffield Scholarship tour. 

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