IT WAS DUSK. We had traveled for almost six hours from Jammu and reached Bhaderwah, an area of low hills and picturesque valleys. With the weather a huge improvement from the Delhi heat, we rolled down our windows. And suddenly a heady floral scent hit us. Looking outside, we beheld a tiny patch of land, shrouded in mauve, the color contrasting sharply with the green hill beside the highway.
We stopped the car and got out to be greeted by a beaming Om Nath, who was carrying a five-litre jerry can. Nath is one of many subsistence farmers in the area who are smiling despite this year’s drought. The jerrycan contains freshly extracted lavender oil, which will easily earn him 50,000 rupees. He is so glad to have given up growing maize, which brought him barely Rs 4,000 per harvest (although the meager harvest was mostly consumed by the family themselves).
There is a purple revolution underway in the region, aided by the Union Government’s Aroma Mission, which aims to inject scientific research and development into the cultivation of aromatic plants (from which valuable essential oils are extracted). ) such as lavender, rose, lemongrass. , rosemary and wild marigold. The Center for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), through its various institutions across the country, is the spearhead of the mission. The Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu is the nodal institute.
Lavender was introduced to the Kashmir Valley decades ago, said Sumit Gairola, Nodal Scientist for Aroma Mission. However, its cultivation was limited to a few plots and it did not take off in a big way. “In 2010, we took the harvest out of the valley. We had developed a variety, RRL12, after three decades of research and were ready to introduce it to Doda and Bhaderwah.
As lavender is not native to India, scientists worked on imported varieties as well as varieties native to the valley, combining and recombining favorable traits in their Petri dishes (such as high oil yield, better oil quality, better resistance to Indian climates), until they had developed a line that they were ready to take from their research gardens to larger farms. The work is slow and meticulous. With each new combination of genetic traits, scientists have to wait for the plant to mature and flower before they can extract the oil and confirm if it is of the quality they had hoped for. At each stage, they work on two or more combinations, then discard the worst ones.
By 2015, around 20 farmers in the region had tentatively agreed to try the new crop. In 2017, however, when the government launched Mission Aroma, the initiative gained momentum. There was now a Center interest in encouraging culture. Jitendra Singh, Union State Minister for Science and Technology, said there is a misconception that startups are only about IT when there is so much potential for startups agriculture, and that the aromatic domain was totally unexplored. “Scientists are contributing to this business by developing lines that generate quality products and can increase revenue many times over. These young people who started growing lavender very early on are already success stories. Aromatics will also attract technically skilled people to leave city jobs and move into growing and processing startups.
Tackling farmers’ reluctance first required constant effort and awareness. “We didn’t want to replace fields with high food yields; instead, we focused on marginal farmers, who had low food harvests,” Gairola explained. Last year, this belt produced about 8,000 liters of oil. This year, the expectation is much greater. Oil quality also improves, from around 1.8% of the flower’s fresh weight to 3%. Currently, 500 farmers grow lavender. Lead scientist VP Rahul recalls the time when scientists walked around with cuttings, imploring farmers to try them. Today, there are fights during sapling campaigns, and farmers even collect stems that fall to the ground.
A lavender plant lasts 10 to 15 years and begins to produce in its first year. Propagation, Gairola said, was done by cuttings to ensure the quality of the crop. Thus, the line propagated in India is seedless. With seed propagation, which is reproductive, desired traits can become diluted or lost over generations. Vegetative propagation is a non-reproductive method, in which there is no mixing of germplasm, so the traits remain the same, from generation to generation.
Lavender requires minimal inputs. It can grow even in drought years and only needs farmyard manure. Like most aromatics, it is pest resistant. In one field, we saw sheep grazing on the grass, but without touching the fragrant lavender plants.
The next day we reached Tipri, a remote village that has no road to get there. The only way to get there is on foot, a journey that can take around an hour, along treacherous paths. Once there, however, the ardor of the journey was forgotten as we gazed down entire hillsides draped in fragrant lavender, the hum of a myriad of honey bees lending music to the sight. “We are the first village to be almost 100% into lavender cultivation,” said the sarpanch, Om Raj. “Last year, we obtained three quintals of oil. Prosperity will change the lives of our farmers. He showed us a small plot of maize, where the crop had shrunk. The fields here are rainfed and the drought was severe. The harvest was on, the women were busy cutting the flower stalks with their sickles. “I will definitely demand a new piece of jewelry this year,” said a young girl. This is the first lavender harvest for his family, and they are delighted. If it rains well, there may also be a post-monsoon mini-harvest.
Already, there are local successes. Farmer Kunjlal Bhagat was among the first to switch to lavender. Today, he maintains a nursery with about three lakh plants. Farmer Bharat Bhushan, who converted in 2010 and was called a crackpot, is now an award-winning farmer and local celebrity.
The flowers are collected in sacks and transported on mules to the various distillation units that CSIR has set up in the region. “Until recently, we used to bring a mobile unit from Jammu for distillation. This year we have set up 11 units,” Rahul said.
The flower harvest is introduced into the unit, each cycle can carry about 500 kg of flowers. The units are wood-fired and the oil is extracted by boiling and distillation. Extraction is best when the flowers are fresh cut, and we have seen farmers booking their slots for the next few days. The harvest season will continue for about a fortnight. The team of scientists working on the project are young and enthusiastic and spend as much time in the large fields as they do with their petri dishes and distillation facilities. There are constant learnings in the field. “Product quality can also be affected by field conditions. We once had a farmer who had a small patch of garlic near his lavender field. Garlic and onion have strong smelling compounds like allicin, which can impact the quality of a crop like lavender, which is grown for fragrance,” Rahul said.
In a patch of lavender, he noticed a lot of caterpillars. Although the crop is largely pest resistant, this year, being a drought year, only this plant thrived in the fields. It attracts stubborn pests. “Don’t fertilize the fields with fresh cow dung; it’s full of pests,” Rahul advised the farmer who was a bit worried that his flowers weren’t as colorful as the others due to the pest attack. “Use treated farmyard manure instead.”
Most of the oil is currently purchased by a family of local industrial farmers, the Bagbans, who then resell it to dealers across the country. “Farmers want immediate gratification for their produce, and it’s important that they get paid immediately. So their interest in growing lavender continues,” said Touqeer Bagban, 35. However, Bagbans alone cannot support the growth of the industry and more players need to step in. This year, the government launched a publicity campaign to attract industry representatives from all over India. For the business to thrive, there must be product awareness and constant demand. If processors buy crops in advance, as they do for potatoes, farmers are guaranteed a stable income.
Lavender oil is used in perfumery, cosmetics and therapy. It has a calming effect and is an anti-stress. Bulgaria and France are the main producers, and almost all the lavender oil used in India is Bulgarian, at 08 per litre. In India, the price is Rs10 per litre. Lowering the price can affect farmers. “We need to create awareness of the superiority of our product and develop a niche market,” Baghban said. “Otherwise, surviving in a competitive market will be difficult.”
The distillation of lavender oil has two by-products. One is marka, or waste flowers and stems after extraction. They are fragrant and can be used to make incense sticks. The other is hydrosol, or lavender-scented water, which can be collected by the gallon. It makes room sprays, bathroom deodorizers and body sprays. Even the dried stems of lavender flowers have a good market, as they retain their fragrance for two years.
Thus, the work of scientists did not end with the introduction of cultivation into the valley. In the next step, they will work to maximize the production of by-products. “There is potential for increased income from lavender cultivation; this is just the beginning,” Rahul said. CSIR hopes to introduce the crop to states with similar climatic conditions, from Himachal Pradesh to Arunachal Pradesh.