It was a little past noon, and the foggy winter skies covered the faraway hills overlooking farm fields at Pedalabudu village near Araku in Andha Pradesh. Against the backdrop of green patches of fields, Bilal Shiekh’s keen eyes scanned strawberry after strawberry, being cultivated on a four-acre land.
The judgment has to be correct. Ripe or not yet? Is the colour just right or is it still a day to go before the perfect shade of red? To pick or not to pick?
Bilal, a third-generation strawberry grower from Mahabaleshwar— the strawberry capital of India— has had a busy day harvesting and packing boxes along with the team of Pedalabudu village sarpanch Das Babu.
It is the second season of strawberries in the Araku region and the yield has been decent. Apart from tasting success in growing strawberries at Lambasingi, a hill station in Andhra Pradesh, the juicy red fruit has now caught the fancy of the tribal villagers of Araku.
Over 80,000 plants of the Winter Dawn variety were planted this season at Pedalabudu, fetching an encouraging yield. The strawberries travel to Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada in neatly packed boxes.
This season, the Italian variety of Murano is being grown at Araku and has seen a growing demand. “We have grown about 5,000 plants this season. The size of this variety is bigger than Winter Dawn and it tastes sweeter too,” says Bilal, an agripreneur who is helping local farmers with quality produce.
While the high-yielding variety of Winter Dawn attracts farmers more from the commercial point of view, Bilal says this variety is largely used in strawberry by-products like jams and jellies. On the other hand, Murano is a large conical-shaped strawberry variety, and its optimal combination of taste and colour has been a big attraction for strawberry lovers.
“Its quality fruit with a distinctive flavour and shelf-life characteristics make this variety unique,” says Bilal and adds: “People often don’t look at names of the variety. And they tend to get disappointed when they experience difference in tastes in punnets of strawberries. But they don’t realise the punnets could be holding two different varieties. We are trying to build that awareness and taste for strawberries in this part of India.” In the next season, Araku farmers will experiment with the Florida Brilliance strawberry variety that is known for its outstanding fruit quality and the Florida Beauty strawberry variety that yields medium-sized uniformly-shaped fruit.
While strawberries are being cultivated in bigger areas at Pedalabudu,, in other parts of Araku, like Bosubeda village, the popular Winter Dawn variety is being grown by the locals.
The strawberry harvest was affected this season due to the December cyclone. Even as a severe winter this time and foggy days have posed further challenges for the strawberry growers, the farms have been drawing visitors for strawberry picking activity. At Pedalabudu, guests can take guided tours through the rows of strawberry fields and indulge in picking a few for themselves to take home and give to friends.
“There is an undeniable charm about plucking deliciously red strawberries from the fields. It’s also a wonderful way to get closer to Nature. It is the best way for children to learn where their favourite fruit comes from,” says Leo Sowjanya, who came for strawberry picking along with her family.
The farms are a sight, being surrounded by misty valleys and lush fields. On average, nearly 300 kilograms of strawberries were sold from the farm directly during the weekends this festive season.
The strawberry season in Araku will go on till February. However, if you are planning to visit a farm here, it is advisable to keep in mind that the weather affects availability at each farm. So make sure you call ahead to find out if the crops are ready to be harvested.