There is a deep sense of despair among areca growers in Chikkamagaluru because there is no hope of relief from yellow leaf disease (YLD).
The residents of Sringeri, Koppa, N.R. Pura, and Mudigere taluks have been growing areca for centuries. In the high-rainfall area, areca is considered most suitable because of its water-resistant quality. However, in recent decades, hundreds of planters have lost revenue from their areca plantations. Several of them, who once got yields of up to 100 quintals a year, are barely getting 100 kg now. A quintal of areca is priced between ₹25,000 and ₹40,000.
Hundreds of youngsters have left their native places in search of a better life, converting major parts of Malnad into a land of senior citizens.
“All my ancestors have lived here for ages. But now, I am worried about my son’s future. For years, the yield from my seven-and-a-half-acre farm was 100 to 110 quintals. Now it has come down to 50 quintals,” said Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, a writer and activist in Sringeri.
Many planters, who used to earn handsome returns from areca, are now forced to compensate for their losses by converting a portion of their farmhouses into home-stays.
“About 20 years ago, we had scores of people working on our farm during the harvest,” recalled Bhaskar Rao, a planter near Sringeri. He owns a 22-acre farm affected by the disease. “The only solution to the disease-affected farm is to cut the trees. I have tried all suggestions, but they have all failed.”
Small farmers with one or two hectares are the worst-hit as the yield from their farms has been zero.
Srinivasa Murthy, a farmer with two acres of areca plantation at Mundugodu, said he tried all alternative crops in the past few years, but none proved to be suitable.
“The scientists have not yet come out with a solution to the disease, which was noticed decades ago. How long should we wait? Soon, areca plantations will vanish from this region,” he rued.
The disease was first noticed in parts of Kerala in 1949. Later, it was traced in parts of Chikkamagaluru district. The Central Plantation Crops Research Institute at Kasaragod in Kerala and the Horticulture Research Centre at Sringeri have been conducting research on YLD. So far, no one has arrived at a conclusive finding on a remedy.
M. Narayana Swamy, professor at the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences in Shivamogga, heads the research centre set up at Sringeri in 2009. Speaking to The Hindu over phone, he said the research was going on. He has been conducting field trials and will be doing DNA study of phytoplasma, said to be the cause of YLD.
“We have only three acres of land, insufficient to conduct field trials. At least 30 acres are required. As of now, we are researching private plantations, where farmers follow many methods suggested by different people to safeguard their crop. We cannot assess our remedies effectively,” he said. Besides that, there are regular scientists to assist him at the centre. The scientist exuded confidence of finding a solution, though he expressed an inability to declare when that would happen.