Onions that make you smile

Vannalli is a small hamlet in the interiors of Kumta, a coastal town on the shores of the Arabian Sea. What sets Vannalli apart from other villages in the region, though, is the rare tag it has. That of being the ‘onion village’.

The onions cultivated in coastal Karnataka are not the pungent variety that makes us shed tears. They are less pungent, tastier, sweeter and don’t make you weep! A small number of poor farmers are struggling to conserve them.
While rainfed paddy is the major crop here, farmers opt for onion and vegetable cultivation in the winters as an alternate source of income.

Including Vannalli, the area under this crop is restricted to around 500 acres along the coast like Handigon, Alvekodi, Kadekodi etc. in Kumta. Some farmers of neighbouring places like Gokarna, Ankola and Bhatkal are also cultivating them on a small scale. The loose sandy soil, high sunshine and cold wintry nights are best suited for the crop. These are the factors believed to be the main cause for the onion’s special taste and pink colour. However, there is not much by way of popularising this crop among farmers. One strong reason could be that the crop demands a lot of hard work and continuous care which many can’t afford.
The crop does not fetch them a good price too. The cost of cultivation is around Rs 80,000 per acre. The benefits, if there are any, are mostly when the farmers have resources and labour.  Normally, farmers here get a yield of 60-70 quintals per acre, which of course is considered to be very low.

Marketing problems
Then, there are issues of marketing. Out of an annual production of about 5,000 tons, more than 70 per cent of the produce is bought by middlemen and sent to different parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa. Farmers have no choice but to sell them for the price that middlemen decide.

Shivananda Naik of Vannalli explains, “If we don’t sell them immediately we will have no money to spend for our daily expenditure in summer.”  Another problem with these tasty onions is that they have higher water content and so can’t be stored for a long time. Even wholesale merchants of Kumta agree that they cannot store them for more than a day. 

Also, there has been no scientific documentation of any sort, nor has there been any effort by government agencies to help save this rare variety of onions.
There is an urgent need for conserving the seeds in its pure form, study their qualities and extend the crop to other regions in the state.
Production has drastically come down, points out Vasant Prabhu, a wholesale dealer in Kumta. Meanwhile, there are farmers who are taking the matter into their own hands, and are setting up sales counters alongside the highways. Tourists, bypassers and wholesale market agents are the customers, typically.

A ray of hope
Another development that could come in handy for farmers is the setting up of the North Canara District Onion Growers’ Welfare Forum, the brainchild of ex-serviceman Goli Annappa Naik of Vannalli. He is trying to convince the farmers to take up onion cultivation in a  community development framework, where problems are addressed systematically, and marketing is taken up through cooperatives. “We are also short of people who are willing to work for a cause like this,” says 75-year-old A P Kadekodi, the governing president of the forum. However, last year, the forum could bargain and get a wholesale price of Rs 1,000-1,200 per quintal for farmers which otherwise was just Rs 700-800. They have visited some places in Nasik  to study the type of storage technology they can develop for onions. Efforts are being made to get the minimum quality parameters checked for promoting these onions as an export commodity. Ganapathy T of  Krushi Vijnana Kendra, Sirsi has been trying to guide  local farmers. Ganapathy, who has received funds from Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), points out, “The crop has high potential but needs proper and urgent attention.”

Not much has gone into promoting sweet onions. There is a lot of scope to promote them among hoteliers and caterers as special ‘salad onions’ in place of the normal pungent onions.
The government and private agencies need to pay serious attention.

Conservation
Farmers are extraordinarily careful about conserving onion seeds. They don’t open the bottles in which the seeds are stored in the middle of the year.
The sun dried seeds are stored in amber coloured bottles, plugged tightly and kept in a dark and dry place. Utmost care is taken not to expose the seeds to smoke, oil, water and sunlight. This method of traditional conservation has been followed for hundreds of years.            

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