19 Jul 2016 19:35 IST

Despite bad times, these farmers swear by rubber

Planting legacy: Antony MJ's father was among the first to plant rubber in Karnataka's Dakshina Kannada

Cultivation of the crop has zoomed in Karnataka in the last decade

These are not good times, but Antony MJ can’t but talk fondly about his rubber plantation. Four decades ago, his father had started rubber cultivation at Chembu, a village in Sullia taluk of Dakshina Kannada district. His father was from Kerala and had brought the saplings from his native.

“I can proudly say that my father was a pioneer in introducing rubber in our village,” says Antony. Then, in the late 1970s, rubber was cultivated on 8,000 hectares in Karnataka.

Since then, the cash crop’s cultivation has zoomed. While the area under rubber cultivation increased by 14,600 hectares between 1970 and 2004, it rapidly grew by 26,000 hectares in the nine-year period from 2005.

Shridhara Bhide, president of the Karnataka Rajya Rubber Belegarara Hitarakshna Vedike (Karnataka rubber growers’ welfare forum), estimates that the area under rubber cultivation in Karnataka is more than 50,000 hectares now. Around 60,000 growers in the state contribute about 5 per cent of the total rubber production in the country.

Production of rubber in the state increased to 34,560 tonnes in 2014-15, from 14,900 tonnes in 2005-06.

Raju Shetty, Chief Executive Officer of Belthangady Taluk Rubber Growers’ Marketing and Processing Cooperative Ltd (a major rubber cooperative in Karnataka) at Ujire in Dakshina Kannada district, says the farmers have taken up rubber as an additional crop along with areca nut. While areca nut requires irrigated land for cultivation, rubber is a dry land crop, he said.

Echoing these sentiments, Antony said that though farmers had choice between cashew and rubber crop to use the available dry land, most of them preferred rubber as it gave them the yield throughout the year unlike cashew.

While rubber plantations expanded rapidly when the prices were high, not much expansion has taken place in the last two years as the commodity's price dropped, accentuated by low crude rates.

For Antony, the lower earning means that maintaining his plantation, for which he needs ₹30,000 a year, is difficult. He has also stopped the renovation of his house. Many of his fellow planters have been forced to stop the construction of their houses midway. “Growers are in no mood to spend,” he says.

But the setback doesn’t mean that Antony and his fellow farmers will stop growing rubber. Rubber cultivation has helped growers in the region to hedge against the fall in prices of areca nut.

Rubber cultivation also increased the value of the otherwise barren land in many parts of Karnataka. Mahesh K, a grower from Adyanadka village says the price of an acre of barren land had reached ₹8 lakh in Dakshina Kannada when the price of natural rubber was hovering at ₹250 a kg.

Betting big on this dry land crop, Rubber Board officials estimate that still nearly 1.5 lakh hectares of land can be brought under rubber cultivation in Karnataka.

Shetty says that though the sale of rubber plants from the nursery of Belthangady Taluk Rubber Growers’ Marketing and Processing Cooperative Ltd was stagnant in the last two years, people are gradually coming back to cultivate it as the price of rubber is more than ₹100-a-kg mark. The nursery, which produces around 30,000 saplings, found it difficult to sell the plants last year. This year there is good demand for the plants for cultivation, he said.