How about meeting your daily Vitamin C requirement and packing a few berries for a fresh cream treat back home? With the harvest season starting, the strawberry gets our attention. At its peak in February, places like Mahabaleshwar, Shillong (where an entire village, Sohilya, is dedicated to the luscious fruit) and Srinagar (where the favourable below 25° clime permits cultivation) start harvesting by as early as December. Closer home, the Nilgiri belt is a hotspot. Of course, you will find native wild strawberries being grown in the kitchen gardens of Coonoor and Ooty, but they are not the choice of farmers. “Owing to their small size, the native varieties are not commercially viable. So farmers grow the American varieties that are bigger and yield more,” explains N Mani, joint director of horticulture in the Nilgiris. Processing companies also get busy as the demand for preserves and pickles increases from December to May. So sign up for the real farm experience. Armed with our list of berry fields across the country, it will be a sweet, sticky and memorable holiday indeed.
— Karan Pillai
Prem Chand’s farm of strawberries, and around 25 exotic vegetables, yields around 70 kilos (of the fruit) a day, every year. “I made several tours across the country and learnt to grow American varieties, sourced from Pune’s Starwberry Growers Association,” he says. Comparing them to the British varieties, Chand adds, “American strawberries, like those from California, are tastier and have more colour.” The more the yield, the better the quality of produce, he insists. “For strawberry products, head to the Pomological Station in Sim’s Park, where you can buy jams and pickles,” he suggests, adding that the Horticultural College and Research Institute of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University takes classes for the same in Sim’s Park.
Checklist: Learn the nuances of hydroponic growing, a method of irrigation that does not use soil, which he is going to implement ay Capberry in the next season. “It provides around eight times more produce than normal methods,” he says. Details: 9442206076
Palani Murugan Pannai
Located in Kanneri (25 km from Ooty), MR Raju’s six-year-old Palani Murugan Pannai yields Californian varieties like Camarosa and Winter Don. “While Camarosa plants have broad leaves, the others like Chandler and Sweet Charlie have smaller ones,” says Raju about telling them apart. The smaller the size of the flowers, the higher the number of strawberries produced. Though other fruits like peaches and plums are grown here, oranges remain the best-selling fruit of the region. For those looking to buy strawberries, he recommends nearby farmstays like Trikaya and Destiny (of Little Earth Group), where prices vary depending on the season. “There is also Fernhill Palace, where guests are allowed to taste the fruits as well,” he points out.
Checklist: While you cannot step into his main farm (for hygiene concerns), Raju has a dedicated section where guests can pluck and taste the fruit. Details: 9843065480
To observe a completely automated system of irrigation, visit MA Ashraf and Sanjay Cherian’s Purple Patch. The two-year-old farm uses an automated irrigation machine from Israel, and labour training consultant Rajiv Sidhar teaches a few local ladies to operate it. Ashraf feels that there are hardly any takers for the British varieties, as American companies like California Pacific have done a good job in establishing their patents in the country. “But regardless of origin, the fruit is rich in nutrients and antioxidants (like Vitamin C),” he shares, adding that strawberry cheesecakes and ice creams are popular in the Nilgiris.
Checklist: Get hands-on experience in operating the automated machine, while Sidhar shares tips on how to cultivate the fruit at home. Details: 9895700077
In addition to American varieties of strawberry, one can admire the exotic European flowers that Jose Mathew grows at his farm. “I grow carnations and gerberas in controlled greenhouses,” says Mathew, who hails from Kerala, where he owns rubber and cardamom farms. Mathew points out that strawberry cultivation is a dicey affair. “Unlike in the US, where it is done efficiently, the Indian industry lags behind due to volatile climate and lack of resources to grow mother plants,” he says, adding that only the older American varieties like Chandler and Verbena (characterised by their roughly conical shape) are available here. “The fruits should not be stored for more than three months, after which problems like discolouration and skin peeling begin,” he warns.
Checklist: If matters of soil interest you, a chat with Mathew, an expert in growing flowers, strawberries and cardamom, can be invaluable. Details: 944704226
GVT Shanthur in the Nilgiris is around seven years old. Though owner G Venkatesh insists that soil with a ph level of 6-6.5 is a must for strawberry cultivation, he grows the red fruit, sourced from Pune and Mahabaleshwar, in greenhouses with a capacity of holding around 10,000 plants in coir pith. “I grow Californian varieties like Nabila, Sweet Charlie and Camarosa,” he says, sharing that he supplies to places like Erode, Chennai, Bangalore and Kerala.
Checklist: At GVT Shanthur, you can tour the farm and taste the different varieties as well. Details: 9787722372
Over 1,000 acres of farms here are manned by owners like Archies Farm, Hirkani Garden, Garden Green House, Shilpa Farm, among others. Some like Deepak Baug also sell ice creams, milkshakes and juices made of the fruit.
Details: 02168 60830
Located near Shillong, Sohilya village is the hub of strawberry production in Meghalaya. It all started when village headmanO Lyngkhoi bought a few plants over a decade ago. Now the village has several hectares of fruit.
Farm fresh: Be sure to pick up fresh strawberries from Namdhari Fresh, a Bangalore-based retail
chain that has farms in Ooty growing the Californian diamond variety. Available at their outlets in Bangalore, priced from `150 a kilo. Details: 09845471272
Preserves from McIver: The homemade preserves at this homestay in Coonoor are a hit across the state. Sourcing the fruits from shops in Nilgiris, they sell at Rs.170 per bottle. Details: 0423 2233323