Manali, Nov 27 (IANS) Cultivation of Himachal Pradesh's prized seed potato, grown in the cold deserts of the Lahaul Valley, is losing its charm but its returns has doubled this season compared to previous years, say agriculture experts.
The rates have been lucrative as a large quantity of potatoes, meant for cultivating fresh crops, headed to northern India for consumption.
"The table potato sold at Rs.20 to Rs.22 per kg in the wholesale markets compared to Rs.8 to Rs.10 kg last year," director agriculture J.C. Rana told IANS.
He said most of the farmers preferred to sell the produce in markets due to prevailing exorbitant prices of vegetables.
Trade representatives here said at least half of the crop was sold as table potato.
The landlocked picturesque Lahaul Valley in Lahaul-Spiti district is known for producing the country's high variety, disease-free, pest-resistant Kufri Chandramukhi and Kufri Jyoti varieties.
Every year, a huge chunk of potatoes finds its way to markets in West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and northeastern states, where these are used mainly as seeds for crops.
"The demand from Gujarat, West Bengal and Uttarakhand for cultivation was good. Now only 25 to 30 percent of the crop is left," Amar Chand Dogra, managing director of the Lahaul Seed Potato Growers Cooperative Marketing Ltd, which is based here, told IANS.
District Agriculture Officer V.K. Chaudhary said the valley has produced 7,815 tonnes of potatoes this year against 10,500 tonnes last year.
He said though the potato crop was bumper this year, there was a decline in its cultivation. Farmers had switched over to cultivation of off-season remunerative vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peas and turnip.
"Poor potato crop in the past two years mainly encouraged the farmers to go for vegetable cultivation."
As per state agriculture department estimates, there has been a 20 percent decline in the area under potato cultivation in Lahaul Valley compared to last year.
Dogra said the group, with 2,100 members, has procured 32,000 bags of 50 kg each of Kufri Jyoti and 8,000 bags of Kufri Chandramukhi.
The marketing society is selling a quintal (100 kg) of Kufri Jyoti and Kufri Chandramukhi from Rs.3,000 to Rs.3,300.
"Last year, both varieties were fetching Rs.2,400 per quintal on an average," he added.
The society, founded in the early 1960s, handles the marketing of the entire produce of seed potato from Lahaul Valley in the open market.
After harvesting, which begins in mid-October and lasts for a month, the society transports the entire produce to Manali for grading and marketing.
Vijay Bodh, a farmer in Darcha village, said: "For the past 20 years we have been cultivating potatoes. Last year we stopped its cultivation. Now, we are growing exotic vegetables. This year the return from broccoli was 100 to 150 percent more compared to last year."
Agriculture department surveys show the area under potato has declined in Lahaul Valley from 2,000 hectares to about 700 hectares over the past decade.
However, the farmers produced 44,240 tonnes of vegetable on 2,221 hectares in the valley this year. The area under vegetable was 1,520 hectares and production was just 532 metric tonnes in 2003.
The history of cultivating potatoes in the valley goes back to 1854 when missionary A.W. Hide from Germany established a farm near Keylong, the district headquarters town some 350 km from state capital Shimla.
In 1965, the then deputy commissioner of Lahaul, K.S. Bains, brought improved varieties of potato seeds that triggered prosperity in the region.
The other cash crops of the area are peas, cauliflower and hops, besides fruit crops like apple, pear, apricot, almond and plum.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)