Image: Durians at the Burliar State Horticultural Farm – courtesy Durian Travel Guide
By Charles F. Moreira, Editor
The hot news in Malaysian these days is that many Chinese tourists to Malaysia include eating durian as part of their itinerary whilst Malaysian durian farmers are exporting durian fruits to China, with some fetching as much as RM342 per durian in Hong Kong, according to The Star of 13 May 2017.
However, over in India there are a growing number of farms especially in Kerela and Tamil Nadu states which have been growing durians for many years now, as well as mangosteens and rambutans.
This is not only because farmers find them more lucrative than traditional crops such as pepper, coconut and betel nut but also to make these fruits more affordable for consumers by increasing home-grown supply.
According to the travel blog Durian Travel Guide, durians were brought to India by workers returning home from the rubber plantations in Malaya about 100 years ago and they planted durian trees for personal consumption, resulting in scattered durian trees being found in the backwaters of Kerela and the foothills of Tamil Nadu.
However, the Burliar State Horticulture Farm near Coimbatore, in a region of the Western Ghats called the Nilgiri Hills has durian and mangosteen trees. The Burliar farm was established in 1871 under British rule.
A Durian Travel Guide article of 24 July 2013 says that the 6.25 hectare Burliar farm consists of winding paths through huge, mature jungle and fruit trees, and most of the durian trees there are old, grown from seed so very tall and scattered about the farm. Since the workers had to wait to pick up the ripe fruits which fell to the ground, the number of durian available each day were limited according to the author who visited the farm and bought one for Rs. 700 (RM45.93) per kg.
The author and his friend found it to be delicious and it’s flesh looked and tasted similar to kampung (village) durians which they had eaten in Malaysia and Indonesia. They also found mangosteen trees in the Burliar farm.
Durians are expensive in India, partly because some studies conducted on male Swiss mice fed with durian suggest that it is an aphrodisiac and the author and his friend found durians in Mettupalayam going for Rs. 900 (RM59.05) per kg.
Meanwhile, according to The Hindu of 28 September 2015, ecologist Sultan Ahmed Ismail, who has participated in durian harvest festivals in Malaysia said that durian is rich in minerals and vitamins.
People like the taste of durian and believe it has some medicinal properties and there is a six-month waiting period for durians from the Burliar and the Kallar Horticultural Farms. People leave their telephone numbers with the farms which call them to collect the durians when they are harvested.
The Burliar farm had 33 durian trees which fruit between July and September, whilst the 27 trees at the Kallar farm fruit between February and April.
According to Syed Sulaiman, a wholesale seller in Ooty, durians sell for between Rs. 1000 and Rs. 1200 (RM65.61 and RM78.73) per kg in the retail market.
“We do not pluck the fruits at Burliar since the trees are very tall. Instead, we pick them up from the ground as they are just right to eat. The fruits can be kept for about four days,” said Syed Sulaiman.
An official with the Horticultural Department said that people from all over Tamil Nadu came to the farm and with durian gaining popularity, many farmers had started picking up saplings from the Burliar and the Kallar farms to grow on their private farms and whilst durian is believed to grow in sub-tropical and tropical climates, a farmer had reported that it could grow in the plains as well.
Since each durian fruit has about two or three seeds each, so there is great demand for durian saplings. Whilst earlier only farmers from Kerela used to buy saplings, farmers in Tamil Nadu with coconut groves had caught on and were also buying durian saplings.
More lucrative for farmers
This interest in growing tropical fruits amongst India’s farmers is not a recent development.
According to The Hindu Business Line of 10 August 2009, farmers in Kerela had begun to find the cultivation of pepper, coconut and betel nut no longer lucrative due to rising production costs resulting from high wages back then, coupled with low yield due to diseases such as quick-wilt, root-wilt and others.
So several farmers in Kerala had switched over to growing high-value tree fruits of Malaysian origin such as rambutan, durian and mangosteen which they found lucrative once they had begun to bear fruit after four to 10 years, without having to spend much on inputs. A few farmers in Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam who grew these tree fruits found them to be beneficial to their business.
A farmer in Eraviperoor Panchayat in Pathanamthitta district had 60 mangosteen and two durian trees within 1.5 acres and a trader had paid him Rs. 430,000 (RM28,212) for rights to the harvest that year.
All that farmer had to do was to apply some organic manure once a year which cost him around Rs. 50,000 (RM3,280), whilst the trader undertook harvesting the fruit at no additional cost to the farmer. Moreover, fruit trees above 10 years old provide high yields and good income.
Back in 2009, durian, rambutan and mangosteen were slowly becoming popular among the Kerala farmers. Whilst mangosteen had arrived in Kerala very much earlier, it however was confined to certain pockets on the banks of the Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Ernakulam rivers, according to Mr Joshua Daniel, a farmer in Konni.
At the time, Daniel was in the process of replacing his 25 acres of pepper and cocoa with 1,000 mangosteen, 40 rambutan and 15 durian trees on his estate instead.
According to Daniel, ever-growing demand for these fruits in India’s metropoles outstripped supply three to one, such that they sold like hot cakes in Chennai.
He supplied these fruits to clients in Chennai who in turn supplied them to India’s other metropoles. A durian fetched between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 (RM32.80 and RM65.61) and a durian tree between 15 and 20 years old could yield Rs. 50,000 (RM3,280.49) per year, a rambutan tree Rs. 30,000 (RM1,968.29) per year and a mangosteen tree Rs. 5,000 (RM328.05) per year.
Readers should note however that all the above equivalent ringgit figures are based upon current exchange rates and not those back then.
However, even today, the online business to business portal IndiaMART lists durians selling for between Rs. 120 (RM7.87) and Rs. 1,400 (RM91.85) per kg.
IndiaMART claims to be India’s largest online marketplace connecting buyers and suppliers – or one could say the “Alibaba” of India.
It has over 3.5 Crore (35 million) buyers, over 40 Lakh (4 million) suppliers and over 4.3 Crore (43 million) products.