| A crushing burden: A boy rolls in a pool of tomatoes before a tomato-wrestling competition in Budapest. (AFP file picture)
Hyderabad, Oct. 29: After farmer suicides over failed crops, Andhra Pradesh is now grappling with a glut of tomatoes that has sent prices crashing to as low as 50 paise a kg.
Chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy reviewed the situation this morning. He urged the farmers not to opt for distress sale and directed the administration to approach agri-processing units of ITC and other multinationals to buy the produce.
On the highway to Bangalore from Hyderabad, rows of farmers stand along the road, women and children in tow, trying to hawk baskets and baskets of tomatoes.
'Please buy and pay us anything you want,' pleads Bhavani at Pamidi village, 55 km from Kurnool town. 'We plucked nearly 65 kg of tomatoes this morning and we have been able to sell only 15 kg,' says the 35-year-old wife of a farmer.
The chief minister said: 'It is an irony that preparations are not made to transport the product to cities like Hyderabad and Vijayawada where the price of tomatoes has shot up.' Tomatoes are selling for Rs 12-16 a kg in the state capital.
They fetch only 50 paise a kg in the wholesale market but sell for Rs 5 onwards in the retail market.
'When the crop was ready in the farms, it was priced at Rs 6 in the rural market. Within 10 days, prices collapsed to an abnormal low,' says Kalinga Rao, a tomato grower at Nandyal in Kurnool district.
One reason is that farmers of Kurnool and Anantpur thought they had struck gold in tomato after the failure of traditional crops such as paddy and groundnut because of poor rain.
'Many farmers wished to try their luck with tomato,' says Krishna Reddy of Gooty, about 310 km from Hyderabad. He has a 100-kg crop daily from 10 acres that shows no signs of selling.
The acreage under tomato shot up from 21,000 acres to 37,000 this year. The crop size crossed the 100,000-tonne mark, compared with last year's 62,000 tonnes. Last year, tomatoes had fetched a high price.
'The production is likely to reach over 200,000 tonnes by the end of November when the crop at Chittoor is also harvested,' state agriculture minister . Raghuveera Reddy said.
But the problem is that farmers do not have any cold storage to put aside the tomatoes. Its shelf life is hardly two days after plucking.
Farmers blame the government for not creating adequate marketing avenues. The rythu bazars floated by the previous Telugu Desam Party regime are now more or less defunct and the horticulture department was unaware till the distress sale.
'Farmers were advised in June itself not to grow what they cannot market,' Raghuveera Reddy said in a cryptic remark that could hardly classify as a solace by the pro-farmer Congress state government. Having provided easy credit and free power and subsidised inputs, the government was in no position to tell farmers not to cultivate.
Either way, the six-month-old Congress regime and the farmers are at the receiving end. 'It is either a problem of farmers facing crop-loss and committing suicide or the distress sale of their bumper harvests,' a senior bureaucrat said.
Farmers have tried several innovative ideas to beat the glut.
'We went to nearby towns to dispose of our produce but almost every farmer is in the same position,' said 42-year-old Prabhakar, the husband of Bhavani. He has standing tomato crop on nearly 4 acres.
'We have opened up canteens selling tomato bhath, juice and pachadi (pickles). But no good sales,' he added.
With almost 7,000 tomato farmers in the sale scramble, the competition is really heavy.