Despite vast wastelands available for lavender cultivation, Kashmir’s contribution to global demand of three thousand tones is just three tones. Shakir Mir explores the possibilities amid bottlenecks
Every year in July, Rubeena Tabassum, 48, slogs at her farm in Bugroo village of Bugdam district, underneath a sweltering sun. Armed with a scythe, she swoops down at a bush of lavender flowers, mowing out a handful. The exercise is repeated painstakingly by a dozen other men and women across the vast fields, beautified by breath-taking long columns of lavender plants.
By evening, the workers amass quintals of unprocessed stems slated to be distilled in an extractor to produce the rich aromatic oil. If the quality is par excellence, the produce may sell for Rs 15,000 a liter.
Since 2010, private lavender growers across Kashmir region have made rapid strides. Lavender is an aromatic flowering plant cultivated extensively across temperate regions for ornamental use or as a culinary herb. Its petals, which grow in whorls, are isolated to extract oil: A yellowish, less viscous liquid giving away a strong odour.
The coveted oil is used in cosmetic industries. Kashmiri growers sell the oil, both in wholesale and in retail.
The plant, experts say, is a draught resistant crop that can be grown on the rocky terrain and wastelands and therefore require considerably less irrigation – a redeeming feature that makes it immensely popular among the farmers.
“It’s a perennial crop like Saffron and its production increases with each succeeding year,” says Shabir, an official at the Floriculture Department of J&K.
The saplings are planted in March and the fully grown floral stems are harvested in July and August.
In Kashmir region, the crop is cultivated across an estimated area of around 20 hectares. There are, at an average, over 200 kanals of land across many districts where private growers raise lavender. Around 2 liters of oil is extracted per kanal of land.
Tabassum, a resident of Chadoora, had stellar success in cut-flowering. In 2010, she diversified into lavender. She cultivates the aromatic crop across her 400 kanals of field at Khansahib in Budgam district. “A litre of oil can fetch up on Rs 10,000 at maximum,” she says. Though, the productivity varies but Tabassum extracts around 40 liters of oil from her farmland annually.
The realization of rich revenue is conditional upon several factors like environment, genotypic effect and location. “Agro-climatic conditions in Kashmir are best suited for its cultivation,” said a Floriculture officer.
Buoyed by its mercurial success elsewhere, the Floriculture department is all set to establish a cultivation farm on 2.5 hectares of wasteland in Aru village in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam.
The project would help create new avenues of employment for the local youth. “Since lavender can grow in wastelands, it carries a certain advantage over other crops,” said the official.
The department is also planning to install an extraction plant to streamline things for the prospective growers.
“We have completed around 30 percent of the work,” officials say. “The project would be completed in 2 or 3 years.”
Civil works have been going on at the project site currently. The department would also sow the saplings on a small expanse of land for demonstrational purpose.
Floriculture is banking on the fact that locals in the Aru village own at least 3 kanals of land at an average. “We will facilitate their venture into this business,” officials say. The department is offering some incentives and as per the guidelines of centrally sponsored scheme, it would lend them 50 percent subsidy in the capital it would take to make the initiative happen.
“When their crop readies, we would also offer our extraction services,” officials disclosed. “We are going to set up an extraction unit for this purpose.”
Officials revealed that the growers, who are registered with the department, will undergo training programs. The most fruitful part of these session, officials say, would be to generate a liaison with the private entrepreneurs across India. “This would ensure that they become gradually autonomous,” officials revealed. “Growing liaison would translate into a sprawling market growth. They wouldn’t have to look out for a buyer anymore.”
Besides incentivizing, field officers of the department are also tasked to impart the technical knowhow. “Scientists of the SKAUST are also likely to be roped into for meting out technical assistance.”
But the players who have been already into the lavender farming from last six years say they did everything on their own. “We established this business well before the government started to venture into this,” Nazir, a private grower in Shangus in South Kashmir says.
Nazir happened to be a chemist but the profession disillusioned him. He thought to make use of his land and raise a meaningful investment. Back in 2009, he purchased some 50,000 saplings from the Khyber Industries, who are understood to have been first to foray into its cultivation. Apparently, they carry out its cultivation on some 300 kanals of land at Ladhoo in Pampore.
Gradually, Nazir grew his farm. “The saplings must have at least 20 cm intermediate distance,” he says. “These plants expand as they grow after each year and cover the open distance.”
Nazir says that Kashmir can surpass Singapore in lavender production if the cultivation is given a fillip. He sold some 14 liters last year to a buyer from Jammu at the rate of Rs 8000 per litre.
Nazir relies on a Floriculture department’s distillation plant located at Alahipora in Pulwama district. Tabassum, on her part, has set up her own.
“In 2013, Director of the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine in Sanatnagar pledged that they would offer distillation plants to the growers but that plan never materialized,” Tabassum says.
She expressed ignorance about the Floriculture department’s claim that growers would be incentivized to up to 50 per cent on the money they would invest. “They give you loans on lesser interest rates only when you have land over 40 kanals,” she claimed. “Besides, they are just a facilitating agency. It would be the bank that is going to give the loan money.”
Pertinently, IIIM in 2010 unveiled plans to introduce and develop large scale cultivation of the aromatic oil producing plants. It hoped to tap five billion dollar global industry. Estimates reveal that the worldwide demand for lavender oil is 3000 tonnes. At present, Kashmir produces 4-5 tonnes of lavender oil with a potential for much more.
Another heavyweight in the production is Sumbal-born Ghazala Amin. The doctor-turned-entrepreneur owns more than 1000 kanals of land where the Lavender cultivation takes place in Asham. Few years ago, she expanded to South Kashmir. She set up a farm over six hectares in Pulwama district in association with Regional Research Laboratory – the first such farm under public-private partnership in the state.
Considering its impressive returns, the Floriculture department is pushing aggressively to give a fillip to the lavender farming in Kashmir. It has expressed hope that it would give boost to the economic mobility of the deprived and unemployed lot.
“Besides, it will enable us to make use of the unutilized land. The crop barely requires any resources. It can even grow on the rocky areas,” officials told Kashmir Life. “It will also contribute to the beautification of our Valley.”