Dragon fruit, the new favourite

White-fleshed and red-fleshed dragon fruits (top) are cultivated in Karnataka.

Farmers in different parts of the State seem to have taken a cue from the fact that India imports a considerable quantity of dragon fruit to cater to those who prefer low-sugar fruits. As a result, this cactus species is grown as a crop in different agro-climatic zones, albeit in small areas. Even though the first dragon fruit orchard in the State, developed by a private firm, in Kodagu district, is over 10 years old, farmers and researchers got enthused by the fruit only recently.

Three years ago, Mahadev Kolekar, an agri-entrepreneur based in Belagavi, saw an opportunity in the exotic dragon fruits that had begun to occupy fruit shelves in city supermarkets. A bit of online research confirmed that this could be cultivated in his less fertile land, with less water. Subsequently, he visited dragon fruit farms in Maharashtra and West Bengal to learn the nuances of cultivation and eventually, grew the crop in one acre. After getting practical knowledge, he promoted the crop and helped develop around 30 dragon fruit orchards in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Climbing cactus

In the State, dragon fruit plots have come up in places such as Lakshmeshwara, Bagalkot, Dakshina Kannada, Tumakuru, Belagavi, Vijayapura, Kalaburagi, Shivamogga, Mysuru, Bengaluru etc. While retired engineer Jaffer Kutty has grown this fruit in one acre in Hiriyur, farmer Narayanaswamy of Chikkaballapura has cultivated the crop in nine acres. Most of these first-generation dragon fruit growers have harvested twice by now and are convinced about its viability as a crop. Many of these farmers have accessed information from the internet and growers in other states. Less water requirement and low-sugar content are the two aspects that have made the fruit appealing to both farmers and consumers.  

Understanding the possibilities, Central Horticultural Experiment Station (CHES) at Hirehalli in Tumakuru district has been promoting the crop. “It is one of the four crops — the other three being jackfruit, avocado and tamarind — identified for research and propagation in the region. We have cultivated white-fleshed and red-fleshed dragon fruits in the centre’s farm,” says Dr G Karunakaran, head of the station. He sees better prospects for red-fleshed ones because of their colour and taste. Karunakaran emphasises that though it is popular as an easy- to-grow crop, proper care and maintenance is essential to get a good yield. 

Unlike other fruit crops, dragon fruit starts yielding early. While the first harvest can be done after 15 months, optimal production happens only after three years. The harvest season is between May and September. The average yield per acre is around five tonnes.

This low-maintenance crop requires an initial investment of around Rs four and five lakh per acre. The plants, which are a type of climbing cacti, are grown on concrete or stone pillars. Different types of support frames and trellises are being experimented to ensure the proper growth of branches. Around 1,800 plants can be grown on 450 pillars in one acre. 

At CHES, it is grown with organic inputs and drip irrigation. Karunakaran specifies that this is a photosensitive species and hence requires appropriate sunlight. This sun-loving plant flowers during the night. Even though it is a self-pollinating plant, it is better to do assisted pollination to ensure 100% fruit setting. 

Dragon fruit, now cultivated as a monocrop, is not free from pests or diseases, but the occurrence is said to be less. While there are attempts to grow vegetables as intercrops to ensure sustainability, CHES is contemplating the combination of coconut and dragon fruit. 

Unlike other fruit crops, dragon fruit starts yielding early. While the first harvest can be done after 15 months, optimal production happens only after three years. The harvest season is between May and September. The average yield per acre is around five tonnes. Almost all the growers are marketing the produce directly, mainly to supermarket chains, and are getting a price of around Rs 80 to Rs 100 per kg. 

Though now the entire harvest gets consumed in nearby cities, the growers are not yet sure about the market once the production reaches its full potential. Since the home-grown dragon fruits are said to be more sweet and tasty than imported ones, they feel that there would not be a need to import fruits once the required quantity is grown locally.

The road ahead

Though growers and scientists agree that it is a beneficial crop, they are wary of future market prospects. “This is one of the most beautiful fruits in the world but people may not consider it tasty. Right now it is preferred only by a certain segment of people – those who are health conscious and like low-sugar fruits. There is no clear information about the market requirement. So, until the market gets stabilised it is better to avoid large-scale production. The production should be demand-driven and sustainability should be the main concern. We should be cautious that this doesn’t turn out to be another vanilla crisis,” says Dr S V Hittalmani, former additional director (fruits), State Horticulture Department. He warns growers not to fall prey to the false promises of nursery agents, who make money by selling saplings.

He feels that there is a good potential for this fruit, which is attractive and highly nutritive, and efforts should be made to tap it. Also, proper research in terms of cultivation practices and value addition would go a long way in establishing the fruit as a crop. Until then, it is better if the enthusiasts grow it in small patches. 

Efforts like these underline the enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit of farmers, which when pursued cautiously, can make the occupation fulfilling and rewarding. For more details, one can contact Dr G Karunakaran on 9483233804.

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