Hardy graft

Print edition : October 19, 2012

T.T. THOMAS IN HIS FARM in Idukki district. He grows a unique, highyielding variety of pepper vine (below) with branched spikes carrying 800 to 1,000 berries, whereas other varieties have single spikes with 60 to 80 berries.-S. GOPAKUMAR T.T. THOMAS IN HIS FARM in Idukki district. He grows a unique, highyielding variety of pepper vine (below) with branched spikes carrying 800 to 1,000 berries, whereas other varieties have single spikes with 60 to 80 berries.

T.T. Thomas farmhouse is a cold, dingy three-room shack, with a ledge for his cat on the kitchen window. Outside is a curious yard of unruly plant growth, mainly rogue vines of pepper plants smothering their support trees, strawberry, tomato, Italian malta, brinjal grafted with other plants, a variety of medicinal plants and fruit trees.

A little beyond is a breathtaking panorama: stretches of greenery that merge with the majestic heights of the Western Ghats, the constant chatter of a nearby stream, the stillness of an artificial pond, the hoots and cries of an assortment of birds and animals.

Thomas likes to remind visitors that the part of the Ghats that dominates the grand scenery lends support to the Idukki arch dam, one of the biggest in Asia. On the other side of the mountain is the huge Idukki reservoir.

Thomas is 71 years old. He came to the forest village of Kanchiyar in the high ranges near Kattappana in Idukki in the early 1960s, much before the arch dam was built.

The 1960s were a hard time to be here for settler farmers like me. The place is 2,500 feet above sea level. It was so cold that you would hesitate to step out. The rain drops used to fall like threads, and we had copious monsoons. The neighbourhood was full of green pepper vines, Thomas said.

Today his farm is a healthy pepper island amidst a sea of thick green cardamom clusters and mostly withering and diseased pepper growth.

My first pepper farm here had about 3,000 vines. I nurtured it for four years but lost the entire crop to quick wilt disease. Then I tried a different variety of pepper that required less shade. That crop was good, but the prices dropped to hell. The early years were full of such disappointments. I used to hunt in the forests and became familiar with several new varieties of plants. I had only one dream thento find a variety of pepper that would be tolerant to diseases, Thomas told Frontline.

In the late 1980s, Thomas finally found what he was searching for: a unique pepper vine. It had branched spikes (unlike the single spike varieties found everywhere else in Kerala). The plant grew well in shade, in sunlight and in water. After several experiments with it in his farm, he eventually grafted it with a disease-tolerant variety of wild pepper of Brazilian origin. The result was amazing, Thomas said. It gave 10 times the quantity of pepper than the usual varieties. Its spikes were fully branched, whereas other varieties had only single spikes with 60 to 80 pepper berries on it. But each spike in the new variety had several branches and would have 800 to 1,000 berries.

S. GOPAKUMAR

Recently, Thomas received an award from the President of India for his innovative, high-yielding variety of Pepper Thekkan (after his family name). According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), while the normal pepper varieties in the high ranges of Idukki yielded up to 3,000kg/ha [dry weight] and are highly susceptible to wilt disease, Pepper Thekkan yields about 8,600kg/ha and is highly disease tolerant.

The grafts from his small nursery are today in much demand, but mostly from big plantations and universities in other States, like Karanataka and Goa, he said. He sells them at Rs.50 each and plans to apply for a patent.

Fellow farmers in the neighbourhood, however, show little interest in the new variety. It looks different, in the way its spikes are branched. Its roots stand like stilts about 50 cm above the ground and are resistant especially to the most prevalent (quick wilt) disease caused by a busily multiplying fungus that strikes at the roots and makes the leaves grow pale, causes the vines to droop and the leaves to curl inwards.

Then the leaves drop and the fruits diethe nightmare of pepper farmers throughout Kerala today.

R. Krishnakumar at Kanchiyar

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