The western Indian state of Rajasthan continues its march towards experimentation and innovation in agriculture. It has, in the last few years, given farmers many alternatives to traditional crops. From being the only Indian state to grow olives to being the largest producer of jojoba in the country, from importing date palms from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to trying out dragon fruit cultivation, the desert state has successfully grown new crops that suit its climatic and soil conditions.
Now, Rajasthan is pinning its hopes on quinoa, an Andean grain which is gaining global popularity for its unique health and environmental benefits.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a pseudo-cereal, a grain that isn’t from grasses such as wheat and rice. This gives it a very different nutritional profile from cereals: high in protein, low in gluten and with a range of amino acids that, combined with significant levels of calcium, have led to it being compared to milk.
Quinoa is mostly grown in the high Andean plateaus of South America — Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador — but it is also produced in the US and Canada. According to an estimate, this grain crop is cultivated on 86,000 hectares and global production is 125,000 metric tonnes.
It is resistant to insects, grows in barren, alkaline soils and can withstand drought and ground frost, making it an ideal crop for Rajasthan. And unlike millets — the state’s staple grain — which tend to be coarse or gelatinous when cooked, quinoa forms fluffy, separate grains like rice, ideal for absorbing the flavours of foods it is served with.
In the 2015-16 rabi (winter) crop season, quinoa was sown on 50 hectares in Bhilwara and Chittorgarh districts in southern Rajasthan. The production was around 18 quintals per hectare. This year, the government wants to spread quinoa farming to the entire state. In Dungarpur, a predominantly tribal district in southern Rajasthan, the government will provide free seeds to poor farmers to encourage them to shift from traditional crops such as wheat and maize to a more remunerative quinoa.
“A farmer can earn 20 per cent more from quinoa than any traditional crop. A farmer doesn’t require special training for quinoa farming,” says Rajasthan’s agriculture minister Prabhu Lal Saini. He says for more farmers to take up the new crops, the government needs to develop markets for them. He’s already working on a buyback guarantee scheme for quinoa in cooperation with export companies.
Some farmers, such as 25-year-old Kesar Mal, jumped on the quinoa bandwagon two years ago when two chartered accountant siblings from Udaipur decided to become entrepreneurs with quinoa, about which they had heard from their friends in the US. “Most of our family and friends are leading unhealthy lifestyles. They have no idea what to eat and what to avoid. The urge to make them eat better drove us to laying the foundation of Queen’s Quinoa,” says Monika Goyal, who quit as a SAP consultant at a multinational firm in Pune to pursue farming. Her elder brother Manish and she roped in local farmers in Anantpur district, Andhra Pradesh, and Udaipur. Mal was one of them.
The man owns 5 hectares of land and grew garlic and psyllium husk (isabgol) on it. In 2014, he cultivated quinoa on one hectare in Jaliya Peepliya village, 35 kilometres from Chittorgarh district headquarters. This year, his entire family will take up quinoa farming.
Gopal Lal, 48, is another such farmer. He grew mustard, soya bean and wheat on the 20 hectares he owns in Karunda village in Chittorgarh, the town known for the 7th century fort that witnessed jauhar — a ritual of jumping into fire to die instead of surrendering to foreign armies — by more than 13,000 women between the 7th and 16th centuries.
Lal tried quinoa after hearing about it from the Udaipur siblings and now motivates others in his village to take this up.
The United Nations celebrated 2013 as the Year of Quinoa to highlight the value of the niche crop, especially its ability to grow in dry soil. It caught the attention of the Goyal siblings, and Manish read extensively about it on the internet. He took up 50 hectares each in Anantpur and Chittorgarh to farm quinoa. The harvest in February-March 2015 was around 12 quintals per hectare. In September 2015, the siblings founded Queen’s Quinoa after they set up a processing plant for Rs2 million (Dh110,651) to remove saponin, a soapy chemical that coats the seed and has a bitter taste, to make it edible.
Saponin saves the crop from depredation by animals such as nilgai. The chemical also acts as a natural pest control measure.
Queen’s Quinoa sells quinoa grain, flour and pasta, and is exporting to Bangladesh and Dubai. According to Manish, the quinoa grown in Rajasthan is of better quality than elsewhere. “The variety that we are growing can yield up to 40 metric tonnes per hectare. So we are focusing only on Rajasthan and have wound up operations in Anantpur,” he says. This year, the siblings want to expand cultivation to 500 hectares.
Saini says the state needs more processing plants to ensure more returns on quinoa for farmers. “The size of quinoa seed is very small and there’s 30-50 per cent wastage during processing. This leads to a rise in the retail cost up to Rs1,000 a kg but the farmer gets only Rs40-Rs60 a kg. Only processing plants and larger volumes can bring the cost down.”
Only when quinoa is affordable to the middle class can it take over local varieties of millets, the small-seeded grasses that are the staple food of indigenous communities of the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa.
Rajasthan’s alternative crops
Olive: Olive plantation started in the state in 2008. It is being grown on 1,000 hectares, including 182 hectares of seven government farms. The government farms produced 40 tonnes of olive in 2015 and 250 litres of oil was extracted from this manually. The state has now set up a Rs40-million plant at Loonkaransar in Bikaner for oil extraction. Oil content in Rajasthan olives is 14 per cent, which is very high. Globally, the oil content varies from 9 per cent to 16 per cent. Now, the state is focussing on growing four new varieties for salads and two new varieties that can be used for both oil production and in salads. Currently, Rajasthan grows seven varieties of olives.
Jojoba: Pronounced as ho-ho-ba, the seeds of this shrub contain an oil that is used as a moisturiser in bathing soaps and cosmetic products. Rajasthan set up Association of the Rajasthan Jojoba Plantation and Research Project (AJORP) in 1995. Farmers began planting jojoba seeds in 2007. In 2015, a man in Bikaner, who grows the exotic plant on 125 hectares, exported 30 tonnes of jojoba oil to Germany and US. He says a jojoba plant requires only one litre of water every day and only 5 per cent of the fertilisers required by other conventional crops. This plant can sustain saline water and the western parts of Rajasthan are highly suitable for its cultivation.
Date palm: Date palm cultivation started in Rajasthan in 2008 on 130 hectares of government farms in Jaisalmer and Bikaner. Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) had identified it as one of the potential crops for Rajasthan. Date palm, an irreplaceable tree in irrigable desert lands, provides protection to under crops from heat, wind and even cold weather and plays a big role in stopping desertification and giving life to desert areas. Farmers in 12 districts — Bikaner, Barmer, Jaisalmer, Churu, Sriganganagar, Hanumangarh, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Pali, Sirohi, Jalore and Jhunjhunu — are growing date palm on 813 hectares. The harvest this year has been 800 tonnes.
Dragon fruit: The agriculture minister planted a dragon fruit sapling at centre of excellence in Bassi in Jaipur on April 7. He said the fruit has high quantity of fat, protein, minerals and vitamins and has several medicinal uses. Commercial cultivation has not begun yet.
Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.