Pongamia: a mid-course check

Promises

Grafting works: Grafting has succeeded in every instance at TOIL. Be prepared to graft every single tree in the stand. That would be a titanic job when 10,000 trees are involved. There are other issues as well [-more later] but a smaller stand of grafted’s will net-net do better than a larger one left free.

Assured pricing power:However perverse the current pricing policy, the future of SVOs is assured. Diesel prices are headed for Rs.100+ soon. A mature stand of pongamia even with low producing trees would make money. TOIL constantly receives buyer enquiries for tonnage quantities.

Yield grows:: Despite being 8 years old, the TOIL stand is in childhood given the natural age of pongamia is 80 years. They have already had one year of 1.6 tonnes harvest. Sreenivas sees in every tree an incremental growth, however low its baseline number. Some trees are slow and can be perked up by grafting. In their young plantation, they have already identified about 5 trees as elite graft donors. His star tree produces 24 kG plus, at age 8.

Suggestions:

After listening to the pointReturn mission with care, Sreenivas suggested we gain from his experience and build on our strengths. Our strengths are:

  • We are non commercial
  • We are a biodiverse plantation
  • We have sourced saplings locally
  • We, on principle, would sell in local markets only
  • We have the opportunity for mid-course correction
  • Food growing would remain our major activity

So, how should we be rethinking our pongamia plan?

Spacing: With a lot of space for its crown, the tree could luxuriate as it does in the wild and produce more. This is a hunch, but a fair one. Maintain a minimum of 20’x20′. Better still, have a pitch of 20′ in rows but 30′ between rows. This will enable intercropping particularly with red-gram, and possibly timber for many years. Intercropping would benefit from pongamia’s profuse biomass output, and it being a legume. Fewer trees would mean, easier seed harvesting too.

Grafting:Commit to eventually grafting 100% of the trees. pR’s existing stand of 3-4 year old trees will throw up a couple of elites when trees in it are about 8 years old. That would enable a well paced grafting programme.

Integrate:As pointReturn is an intentional community rather than a commercial one, integrate pongamia’s biomass, oilcake and inter-row spaces into agricultural activities instead of seeking markets for all products of pongamia. When farming input cost advantages are factored in, the overall project economics would change dramatically.

Grafting issues:

  • Identify and mark the elites with care. A few at least should emerge from the current stand. A tree that outputs 20kG would qualify as an elite
  • The whole grafting process must be done within 2 hours of the graft being cut from the elite. It is imperative that elites are available within the project to enable quick operations.
  • No more than about 30 grafts/year would be available from an elite without exhausting it. The difficulty of grafting multiple 1,000s can be imagined from this. From this point of view as well, fewer well spaced trees are advisable

I have been reflecting on my visit and conversations with Sreenivas as I write this, about two days after returning. It does seem unfair that we should benefit from the difficulties he has run into and gamely trying to overcome. He is a true explorer and has all our good wishes. His success at TOIL will be a game changer for the biodiesel industry everywhere. It is comforting to know I have his counsel at the end of a phone line.

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