Strawberry-flavoured products are a rage across the world, especially when it comes to confectionaries and fruit-based items. Be it ice-creams, cakes, desserts, toffees or even infant food, the intense love for the pint-sized fragrant berry ensures that there is a strawberry-flavoured version for all of them.
Scientifically, though, it would be incorrect to categorise strawberries under berries or even fruits for that matter. In fact, the pinprick-sized seeds that you find on a strawberry are actually the fruits while the fleshy part is derived from the receptacle holding the ovaries of the strawberry runners.
This fascinating aspect of the scarlet-hued fruit lends it a place under the category of ‘aggregate accessory’ fruits.
In India, the hilly town of Mahabaleshwar nestled amidst the forests of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra is synonymous with the fruit. In fact, the town is so famous for its strawberries that it was bestowed with the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2010. At the same time, there are many other regions across the four corners of the country that have also been successfully cultivating and growing the fruit for decades.
One such region is the Nilgiri belt across Tamil Nadu where many farms located on the high-altitude terrain nurture and harvest several metric tonnes of strawberries every year that are not just distributed across the country but also exported to other countries as well.
In a pursuit to find out if there was anyone who was growing the fruit on a large scale, but using organic methods for doing so, we came across an enterprising young man from Udagamandalam, popularly known as Ooty, who turned his ardent love for plants and trees into a farming venture, backed with intensive scientific research and is now tending to over 30,000 strawberry plants across a 1.5 acre patch of land near the Mukurthi National Park.
Babu Rajshekar comes from a management background but always nursed a proclivity towards gardening and nature.
“Growing up, I’d observe my mother looking after our garden, and I guess my love for plants and trees began around that time. Even something as trivial as the germination of seeds would garner my interest. My mother was a skilled gardener, and we would have strawberries around the year at our home,” he says to The Better India.
After working in the IT sector for many years, Babu had reached a saturation point and felt the urge to pursue a different path which would be entirely different from the one he had been on all his life. With his father’s support, he decided to become a farmer and focus on growing quality organic strawberries. Babu’s father, P Rajasekaran, is a former executive engineer who had worked with the Agricultural Engineering Department.
In 2015, he started out with 3,000 saplings that were grown in a poly house.
“Before that, I’d begun my research and learnt anything and everything on organic farming and scientific agriculture that I could lay my hands on. Following this, there was a 1-year long period of experimentation, where I saw both good and bad results,” laughs Babu.
Babu was particular about practising farming in an organic patch of land. “This was quite difficult because years of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides had ended up changing the bio-dynamics of the soil across Ooty. Finally, we zeroed in on an untouched plot near the foothills of the Mukurthi reserve where the soil had good pH level, fresh water sources as well as groundwater table content,” he explains.
It is important to note that growing strawberries organically is no mere task. Babu decided to take the scientific route and brought together biodynamics and organic farming under a single umbrella.
“From beneficial bacteria in the soil to heavy metal needs, everything is imperative to sustain the plants and ensure that they give a good yield. Science-backed agriculture is rarely practised in India because farmers focus more on returns through chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In other parts of the world, nematodes are put to use in agriculture for enhancing nutrient mineralisation for their ability to act as biological control agents, but very few agriculturists and farmers know about these,” Babu elucidates.
Babu’s foray into farming eventually started showing excellent results in terms of quality and yield, and he started selling these strawberries across Ooty. Following a growing demand for his strawberries, Babu eventually began expanding the supply to even Chennai and other cities in Tamil Nadu.
You can see for yourself how large these strawberries are compared to the ones we buy from grocery stores in cities and towns.
“On an average, it takes about 90 days to prepare the plants and another 20 days to harvest them. One plant can produce roughly 500-800g of strawberries during the harvest season. At present, we have 30,000 plants across the farm, which can easily produce a bounty of 10-15 metric tonnes of strawberries,” clarifies Babu.
Because of the farming principles he adheres to, Babu prepares jeevamrutham as the manure for the plants and has placed bug-repelling plants all around the farm instead of pesticides. The journey has been quite challenging for the young farmer, but he has learnt through all the ups and downs and feels that he is unstoppable.
“We were approached by confectionary firms for our strawberries, with one particular project focusing on baby-grade food. It was important for our strawberries to pass lab testing for safe consumption and having no chemical trace. We had sent samples to labs across India and even Germany, and after seven months, we got selected for the project thanks to the flawless lab results,” adds a happy Babu.
It is fantastic to see someone as driven as Babu, who left his cushy IT job to pursue full-fledged farming and scale greater and ‘sweeter’ heights, thanks to his love for strawberries. He plans on expanding his farming venture to veggies and exotic fruits subsequently.
You can look up Babu’s farming endeavours on his Facebook page, Nilgiri Organic Strawberries. You can reach out to him at 9487043045 or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)