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  • Team ThinkAg

A Case of Mechanisation in Horticulture Farms in India

Updated: Feb 2

Practice of growing fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers is considered as Horticulture. We are experiencing a rapid growth in Horticulture in recent years so much so that total horticulture production surpassed the total grain production in the country a few years back and it has been consistently performing better than food grains. Horticulture production has doubled in the last two decades. [Ref] Horticulture uses only 13.1% of the total cropped area and contributes a massive 30.4% to agriculture GDP. Recent developments in horticulture production can be related to better varieties, mechanisation, better farming practices and supportive government schemes for realisation of value of horticulture crops. This massive growth comes with its own challenges which sooner or later have to be addressed.

Horticulturists typically carry out these processes before the produce reaches the consumer. Each of these steps must be performed at a perfect time, synced with others and since it is a system in which all sub-systems work in a series, the final efficiency has to be multiplication of individual efficiencies of sub-systems. Higher efficiency means higher farm income hence higher profitability.

Eorchard : Esoil x Eplant x Eprotection x Eharvest x Ecollection x Esorting x Etransport x Estore

To understand the complexity of the problem, even if we run all steps at 99% efficiency the final efficiency of the orchard will come out to be only 92.27% (multiplying 0.99 for 8 times). Of course, it is not possible to put everything in a mathematical equation and solve for it but it gives us the clue as to why each step is equally important. Solving for the inefficiencies of these steps using mechanisation can be seen with two different approaches.

Activities marked in Zone 1 viz Soil preparation, Transplantation or sowing, Crop protection, Harvesting, Collection and Sorting are largely labour intensive and should be solved for reduction in labour cost hence making those steps productive and profitable.

Zone 2 activities viz Harvesting, Collection, Sorting, Transportation and Storage are major stages where spoilage takes place and should be solved for reduction of wastage hence increasing the profitability. The harvesting, collecting at farm and sorting are in the overlap zone which need a lot of labour and still contribute a lot to wastage.

All the processes till sorting generally take place at farm level and any improvement made to these steps will directly affect income of the farmers, which is a bonus.

Labour Saving Approach

An average fruit producing farm would require 860 mandays per hectare annually whereas cereal production requires only 143 mandays per annum. Crops like bananas, grapes and pineapples would need 1,000-2,500 mandays per hectare annually. That means labour requirements are going to shoot up with the advancement of horticulture. Skill required to perform farm operations to grow fruits is much higher than cereal or grain production, which adds to the complexity. To further worsen the situation comes the average farm size of horticulture crops which is smaller than the national average. For example, UT of Jammu & Kashmir has almost half of its sown area under horticulture cops and has almost 70% of its sown area is under small and marginal farms (against national average of 47%). In contrast Rajasthan with barely 7% of its area under horticulture has only 19% area under small and marginal farms. Good news is that despite being small farms their income is much higher when compared with agriculture as a whole. A fruit orchard can give 3-5 times more value than field crops. In conclusion, these are very small farms which require a lot of skilled labour and have money to pay if solutions are appropriate. This opens doors for mechanised farming, but all these solutions have to be tailormade for our farming practices and have to be based on needs of the farms which are very unique. For example, apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh which produce one of the best apples for the country have very unique terrain with slopes where standing itself is difficult, are almost completely rainfed unlike all other countries producing apples and are highly fragmented. This creates a unique set of requirements for a new product development in mechanisation on which homegrown companies can thrive.

Statistics (published by most government institutions) suggest that our farms are mechanised to about 40 per cent but this number hardly makes any sense because mechanisation across different crops and stage of farming viz. Soil Preparation, Sowing/Planting, Crop Protection and Harvesting is poorly distributed. [Ref] Recently post harvesting has been accepted by think-tanks as part of farm mechanisation which is good news for the industry but not much data is available on post-harvest penetration.

From this table (reproduced with reference of Transforming Agriculture Through Mechanisation by FICCI & GT india) it is visible that mechanisation levels in horticulture crops along with vegetables are much lower when compared with other crops. One reason could be that any mechanisation solution for horticulture must be designed for a lot more precision than for power. Our thought process has become so much focused on power that we have started using the unit of measuring power (kilowatt or horsepower) as a unit of mechanisation for farms which is reflected in many reports where think-tanks talk about how much power per hectare was added to Indian farms. This powerplay overshadows the fact that we have ZERO per cent mechanisation when it comes to labour intensive precision jobs like harvesting fruits or harvesting cotton! Further damage is seen in the form of wastage of crop in the next section.

Wastage control approach

While there is large variation in statistics when reporting the wastage of fruits and vegetables, the latest report from MOFPI suggests that we lose almost 16 per cent of our total F&V produce. [Ref] If one has to put numbers in perspective, the second largest producer of F&V (that’s us) wastes as much as 50 million tonnes of horticulture produce assuming our production was close to 311 million tonnes in 2021. We often hear that India adds another Australia to our population every year but is not disturbing that we wasted vegetables close to as much as the whole United States of America produced in a whole year and USA being the third largest producer of F&V! [Ref]

The above tables from a study of CIPHET, ICAR [Ref] shows the percentage level of wastage at various stages of production for leading fruit crops. There have been multiple such studies and there seems to be some deviation in this data but let us draw a few conclusions without going too deep.

Losses of fruits at the harvesting stage and sorting/grading stage are the maximum even higher than total losses in storage in all channels. Also, the losses occurring at wholesale storage seem to be at the highest level among all other storage channels. Study results for vegetable crops are also consistent as given in the below table.

If one has to take a problem-solving approach, harvesting and sorting/grading seem to be low hanging fruits with maximum returns. But it will be naive to ignore storage which adds great value by giving freedom to schedule the sale of the produce when market conditions are favourable.

In conclusion, the case of mechanisation should be seen from a holistic point of view with appropriate indigenous technology and solutions. Resources, time and energy being spent on solving inefficiencies of the current systems should be budgeted based on the needs. Cold storage capacity in tonnes should not become the sole parameter to control the food losses just like horsepower or kilowatt is not the true representation of level of mechanisation in horticulture.

- Nitin Gupta, Founder, Sickle Innovations

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