Pongamia: a mid-course check

I had projected income from 1,000 trees and found that number quite sufficient to meet the project objective.

Sreenivas Ghatty, in the meanwhile had forged ahead with a breathtaking audacity. In 2003, he bought 120 acres in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. He and a few friends, had raised a considerable sum of money. Sreenivas, in under a year had planted 40 acres of jatropha and 60 acres of pongamia. Their company Tree Oils India Ltd [TOIL] , has been incurring great expense to care for the plantation. Sreenivas is a diligent, daring pioneer, to whom the pongamia industry will one day come to owe a great debt. The records TOIL keeps, the research it carries out at great expense, the honesty with which it admits its mistakes and the difficulties it faces, is the very stuff of good science. Many will save great sums, because of TOIL’s work.
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When Sreenivas got in touch with me in 2010, I had arrived at a restful crossroads: an enthusiastic young team was forming at pointReturn, which will care for the project after my time. It needed to be personally convinced of pongamia’s relevance to pointReturn’s financial security. 400 of the intended 1,000 trees had already been planted. Before we enlarged the plantation, wouldn’t it be prudent to benefit from Sreenivas’s 8 year long experience on a large scale?

So, off I went to Hyderabad and onward to Zaheerabad. Sreenivas is as genial as ever. He lives the biodiesel dream; “oftentimes it’s a nightmare”, he laughs. The plantation has trees in various contexts: trees in 5mx5m and 7mx7m grids; in tilled and untilled lots; irrigated and unirrigated; natural and grafted; chemically fertilised and not-so; in mixed stands and unmixed. He has been able to observe them from most points of view. That is information that is priceless.

In my conversations with him over two days, I learnt and gained much that I will share with the pR team. We shall be indebted to him greatly. I summarise what I learnt, in no particular order.

Pitfalls:

Jatropha is dead – or rather, killed off:Ag.Universities’ hype and farmers ruined by oh-so-easy bank loans sponsored by start-up scamsters has ruined Jatropha’s reputation beyond repair. Also, it is a myth Jatropha requires no irrigation. At TOIL they are uprooting them from many acres. In some years, the yield is so low it is not worth their while to harvest them.

Pongamia seed yield is not uniform:Pongamia belongs in the wild. It has not been domesticated for long. Its yield in a monocultural plantation is therefore unpredictable. Sreenivas has seen min and max of 200gms to 20kg in a single stand. What could be the reason? monoculture, problems in cross-pollination, the spacing, maturing variation… it is difficult to pinpoint.

Pongamia is not disease free:It’s a myth that nothing afflicts the tree. True it’s hardy and nearly impossible to kill off, but it has a serious pest in the pod borer. TOIL has found a number of pods bored in one season and the seed eaten up. One year, there was a massed caterpillar attack: an army of them went from tree to tree and clipped every leaf to the quick. As it happened just before the seed setting season, they lost that year’s yield. They sprayed chemicals to stem the invasion. Mealy bugs attack the tree too. Leaf-gall is the least of the diseases.

Harvesting nuts : In a large plantation harvesting can be a backbreaking job. At TOIL, a team of 4 people can harvest 20 trees a day. The drill consists of spreading a tarpaulin under the canopy, climbing part of the way up and shaking branches or hitting clusters.

Marketing: For large plantations, marketing would be an issue. A perverse law in force, states that trans-esterified biodiesel may only be sold to petroleum companies and currently they buy at a ridiculous Rs.26/litre. That’s a classic crony-law making at work. Yes, straight vegetable oil [SVO] has no restrictions, but a large plantation cannot find local markets for their volume.

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