The southeastern part of India along the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border is infamous for growing ganja (cannabis). A tribal-dominated belt of Vizag and Visakhapatnam Agency is believed to supply 80% of the country’s ganja, which sees frequent seizures and raids by officials.
The geographic conditions, like soil and cool climate, are said to be responsible for making the belt ideal for growing the contraband. But 42-year-old Jestin Joseph in the region is chasing a different kind of high, by growing exotic fruits like strawberry, dragon fruit, passionfruit and blackberries. Interestingly, he also makes cakes, buns, rotis, pudding and even wine out of dragonfruit.
The corporate trainer turns farmer.
Jestin is an adventure sports teacher, corporate leadership trainer and works on tribal development for social causes, but decided to add another feather to his cap when he tried his hands at farming in 2017.
“I planned to grow pepper and coffee, but after some research, I realised the venture was time-consuming and required a lot of attention. Around the same time, I learned about dragon fruit, which requires less maintenance,” he says.
Starting on a two-acre land, Justin expanded his cultivation to nine acres. The farmer says this rapid expansion is thanks to the commercial success he gained from growing the exotic plant. “I reap about four tonnes of harvest per acre, and the fruit sells at Rs 100 per kg in the wholesale market. I earned Rs 4 Lakh per acre this season,” he says.
Jestin says that apart from good returns, the crop requires no maintenance, and has fewer infection rates.
Thorns in the way of Dragonfruit
However, Jestin had to weather storms before he could experience smooth sailing. “Not many farmers grow exotic fruits in the area. There was a lack of expertise to seek help if needed. Dragon Fruit is mainly a cactus creeper found in North America. The excess water during rain spoilt the crop initially,” he says.
He adds that four years ago, with no technical knowledge, he lost 4,000 plants worth Rs 2 Lakh in the first year. “The plant requires water once in five days during growth and once in three days during the harvest. It practically rained every day that year. The crop got infected with fungus, and I had no solution. The fungus was attacked by termites, which killed the plants in four days,” says Jestin.
The farmer said that through experiments, he realised that a one rupee blade was the solution to the problem. “All I had to do was cut off the infected part and expose the wound to the sun for it to dry. There is no need to spray fungicide or pesticide on the plant,” he says.
Dragonfruit wine and cakes
Jestin says after this success, he decided to experiment with the fruit. “I learned that in the Philippines, wine is made from white and pink varieties of dragon fruit. I have been making wine from different fruits like pineapple, grapes, gooseberry, pomegranate, guava and mango for the past 15 years and decided to experiment with dragon fruit,” he says.
He added that he made wine in small quantities, and gave it to his friends, who wanted more after chugging one glass. “I said it is all over,” he laughs.
To popularise the fruit, Jestin’s sister, Vinitha, made pudding, puttu (traditional cake), rotis and cakes out of the fruit. “Not many people are aware of it, and I saw my brother put in a lot of hard work to grow dragon fruit. To increase the fruit’s popularity, I tried to make interesting products from it,” says Vinitha.
She adds that taking advantage of the natural bright pink colour of dragonfruit, she made desserts and delicacies of the fruit as well.
Apart from the profitable engagement, Jestin has been able to change the social dynamics of the area. “The tribals in the area are mainly unemployed and drowned in alcohol addiction. It isn’t easy to get them off the streets. In the past four years, I have been able to employ 20 tribals to keep them occupied in something productive and earn some money for the home,” he tells The Better India.
He says he also managed to get eight youngsters to seek training in mountaineering courses. “One of them secured an A grade at Mount Abu, giving him a new direction in life entirely,” he adds.
Jestin says he wants to continue growing dragonfruit and also create an adventure park to train tribals and bring social development in the area.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)