Black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, vanilla and to some extent clove - and there ends the mindset of an average Kerala spice farmer! Few venture out to challenge this traditional mindset and try out other new spice crops which were introduced to the country many decades or centuries ago and have been languishing in the corner of the homesteads though there are ample examples of the same or late time introduced crops like pineapple, tapioca, nutmeg, clove, rubber, cashew nuts etc which have become an integral part of Kerala society and landscape by now. There have been many reasons such as lack of know-how, marketing uncertainties, profit margin etc for such a plight. Allspice, an introduced tree spice, though known to many farmers across the state since last few decades, is a case in point. However, of late, this crop is gradually finding a place in the spice canvas of the state striking roots in the spice choice of the farmers. Here we chronicle a successful enterprise in allspice farming undertaken and nurtured against the odds by a young farmer from Wayanad, Kerala.
A Caribbean delight
Jamaica is the home of allspice. Allspice or Pimento (Pimenta dioica) is believed to be introduced to India during 1800s, apparently from the Caribbean region. The evergreen medium sized trees with a slender upright trunk and smooth greyish bark are now found in isolated pockets of Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha besides here and there in Kerala. The dried berries, which are the commercially traded commodity, find several uses across food, pharmaceutical and perfume industries. Berry oil, allspice oleoresin and leaf oil are other products of economic use besides whole or powdered berries. Allspice is known for its medicinal, anti-microbial, insecticidal, nematicidal, anti-oxidant and deodorant properties.
The culinary importance of allspice is on the ascent with the spice finding a place of pride in several regional cuisines. Allspice is an indispensable part of the Caribbean cuisine which derives its exquisite flavour and taste from this spice. It is one of the main ingredients in several seasonings, moles, commercial sausage preparations and curry powder in the region. Allspice is also integral to Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines where it is used to flavour a variety of stews and meat dishes. In the United States, it is used mostly in desserts but it is also responsible for giving the famous Cincinnati chilli its distinctive aroma and flavour. Even in many countries where allspice is not very popular in the household, as in Germany, it is used in large amounts by commercial sausage makers.
The pimento industry of Jamaica, which is one of the major producers and exporters of the commodity, is earning an estimated US $5 million annually from exports of whole berries, leaf, berry oils, liqueurs and other value-added products.
Taking the Plunge-Evangelist of change
The potential of the crop notwithstanding, it has few takers in India, with very limited organized cultivation. In this scenario, the allspice farming enterprise of K. D Jayanthan of Muttil, Wayanad district assumes significance, not only as a source of inspiration for innovative ventures but also a model for emulation.
Jayanthan traces his ancestors to the Jains from Karnataka who migrated to Wayanad about 300 years ago. Having inherited about 15 acres ancestral farmland with the traditional mix of black pepper, coffee and arecanut, it was an advertisement, many years back, about the scope of allspice that caught his imagination. The unassuming youth weighed the risks of the venture and decided to try his luck in allspice. He obtained about 200g ripe seed berries from the Mangalam Carp Estate, Wayanad for Rs.1000/-and raised the seedlings. The selected seedlings were planted mainly along the border of the homestead farm at a distance of 7-8 meters beside as an intercrop among the existing crops. What started as a supplementary foray to augment his farm income soon became the focal point in the farming enterprise.
Recipes for success
The seedlings planted and nurtured by Jayanthan have grown into trees of 6-10 meter height and are in thick, profuse bearing for several years now. The farm with more than 100 mature allspice trees in full bearing amidst pristine environment is a sight to behold. Jayanthan practices organic farming. Farmyard manure is liberally applied to the trees. As there are no pests or diseases, no fungicide or insecticide sprays are warranted. Allspice prefers open condition says Jayanthan. Basin irrigation (sprinkler) from January to February end at an interval of 10-12 days can ensure uniform flowering and synchronous maturity of the berries. The berries are ready to harvest by the first week of May. Green berry with 70-80 % maturity is the correct harvesting stage. Usually, when one or two berries in a bunch turn brown, the whole bunch is ready for harvest. Correct stage of harvesting is crucial for good quality pimento. Harvesting is done by pulling off the whole bunches manually, standing on ladders erected around the tree, along with the berry stalk and few leaves onto a picking mat spread at the base of the tree. A single worker can harvest up to 40 kg berries per day. Generally, there is only one harvest per year though there some trees which yield twice a year. Some of the elite trees in his farm yield up to 130 kg fresh berries with an average yield of 15 kg dry pimento per tree.
Nitty –gritty of processing and marketing
The harvested produce should be dried immediately lest the berries (pericarp) start decaying and adversely affect the quality. Processing is usually done by thinly spreading the harvested produce on a clean drying mat under sun. It takes about 3-4 days to attain the proper drying (10-12% moisture). Using improved cardamom driers, the berries can be dried within 16 hours. The dried bunches are then separated into berries and stalks by manually rubbing against wire mesh of suitable size fixed on a wooden frame.
Jayanthan sells his produce @ Rs.800-1200/- per kg, depending on the season. About 10 % of the product will be stalk which fetches about Rs.150/- per kg in the market. The produce is rarely sold at one go as the sale depends on the demand/enquiry from the market. But this is never a worry for him since the properly dried produce can be safely stored for about two years without any loss in quality. Occasionally allspice leaves also have demand and gets Rs.70-80/- per kg of withered (semi dried) leaves.
The Wayanad Social Service Society (WSSS) and the local spices traders are the ones who source the produce from Jayanthan. Traders from Erattupetta, Kottayam also buy pimento from farmers. The produce sent to North Indian markets is mainly consumed by the masala powder/curry powder industries and food & flavouring industry. The product is also exported to several destinations across the globe for a range of end-user applications across food and pharmaceutical industry.
Heralding a new culture
There is no better yardstick of acceptance than adoption. Jayanthan’s success has spawned an attitudinal shift among the farmers towards allspice. Buoyed by his success, several farmers from nearby places like Ambalavayal, Mananthavady, Meppadi, Vythiri, Pulppally etc., all in Wayanad, have taken up allspice cultivation. Jayanthan also sells seedlings of allspice from his nursery. His successful tryst with allspice farming is an eye opener for agricultural policy planners. With concerted efforts in strategic market expansion and value addition, the crop can be successfully cultivated in other locations with similar climatic conditions. The allspice trees in Travancore Rubber and Tea Co. Ltd Ambanad, Kollam district exemplifies such geographical adaptability.
Intervention by the ICAR-Indian Institute of Spices Research, Kozhikode has helped not only to spread the success of Jayanthan across the country but also in quality testing of the produce. The produce from Jayanthan’s plot recorded a dry recovery of 31.2 per cent with oleoresin and essential oil contents of 8.2 and 2.6 per cent, respectively.
B Sasikumar, Lijo Thomas, VA Muhammed Nissar & R Sivaranjini
ICAR- Indian Institute of Spices Research, Kozhikode