By Veidehi Gite
Jaffna Grapes were farmed on over 100 hectares of land before the war. After the war, the trade has revived, but will the grape industry survive?
The Dutch introduced grape cultivation to Sri Lanka two centuries ago. While grapes are grown in other locales, Jaffna is the only one that cultivates them commercially. I was ecstatic to visit a grape farm in Jaffna in October 2021 and get a perspective on the survival of the Jaffna Grape Industry. Northern farmers appear to have relied on this ancient crop as a source of revenue since the beginning of time. In today’s Jaffna, there are around 800 grape growers. Because of the higher return on investment, grape production has revived in several locations. The number of producers is expanding, thanks to a steady market and a higher price for their produce.
The war between Sri Lankan Tamils and other minorities ravaged Sri Lanka for thirty years, killing many, destroying almost everything, and stifling the nation’s development in many ways. The whole country bewailed but, it is no exaggeration to say that the North suffered the most. Agriculture, financial resources, indoctrination, healthcare, and the lives of residents were all affected. Viticulture was no different! But despite the war’s impact, this agricultural vocation is only commercially viable in the Jaffna region.
According to locals, more than 100 hectares of grapes were farmed, in the Jaffna region before the war. As a result of the war’s trade challenges, an increasing number of farmers left the business since it was no longer lucrative. After the war, however, trading resumed and presently covers 45 hectares in Jaffna. Farmers who lost their farms during the war have been permitted to restore their operations, and the government is pushing new farmers to join the industry.
When you visit a grape farm in Jaffna, you will see that grape growing is much more than simply a source of income for the farmers of the north; it is an integral part of their daily life. Farmers of Jaffna have many beliefs and traditions interlaced with grapevines. However, the older farmers are concerned that future generations will despise hard work and would rather work from the conveniences of a large office. Being a grape farmer is not one of the most popular vocations among the younger generation. As a result, the Northern Province Ministry of Agriculture has stepped in to help Jaffna farmers increase crop yields by introducing new grape varieties.
Two new grapefruit varieties, Sonaka and Seedless Sharad have been imported from India to produce larger and sweeter grapes than the indigenous varieties. Both the central department and the Ministry of Agriculture support the concept of importing new seedlings. Imported seeds have already been disseminated, and promoted among Jaffna farmers, and the peninsula hopes to see more quantities of A-grade grapes in the coming years. You see, grape growing, in comparison to other farming endeavours, necessitates a substantial investment and work. The pandal system alone costs roughly $750 to build on a quarter acre farm. Even though it is an expensive trade, it makes enough money to be deemed lucrative.
I visited the vineyard in Jaffna in October, a month after the harvest. I discovered that harvesting takes place only twice a year. Once in March and April, then again in August and September. The dry season is the best time for grape production; as the weather provides enough sustenance for growth. Some farmers, on the other hand, prune in such a way that they can produce crops even when they are not in season. These farmers will tell you that a quarter-acre farm may produce about $1000 in grapes every season. This strong revenue is one of the key motivators for other farmers to expand their grape fields, increasing Jaffna’s overall crop production to assist the economy.
Locally cultivated grapes are less costly, with a kilogramme costing $2 as opposed to $5 for imported grapes. Because imported grapes are more considerable and sweeter than locally cultivated Jaffna Red, quality-conscious consumers are ready to pay more for imported grapes, posing a grave threat to the local agricultural industry. This is another reason why the ministry is trying every way available to develop crops that can compete with the quality of those imported. Jaffna grapes already have a substantial demand in the southern market, which the government hopes to expand globally by acquiring control of the imported grape market.
Grape cultivators in Jaffna are in for a treat, as agricultural authorities have implemented new pruning and growing procedures that will make their harvest sweeter and perhaps seedless, similar to the Australian type. The grape sourness has been a big setback for grapevine growers who rely on the product for a living. The local grape farmer at Allai Vivasaayi demonstrated how he picks the soil, instals the pandal, prepares the drainage, waters the farm, fertilises it, and, last but not least, prunes it. His perfection in this profession creates the sense that grape cultivation is more of an art than a trade.
On an acre, over 500 vines can be grown. Within ten months of planting, the vine bears fruit. Farmers spend roughly $1 to harvest one kilogramme of grapes and earn nearly $3 for the same amount. Even more, if the grapes are sweeter. Grapevine agriculturalists say that there is a stable market for grapes and they receive a fair price for their produce. Grapes in Jaffna are usually consumed raw or used to produce jam, wine, juice, vinegar, raisins, and grape seed oil.
Even though more farmers are entering this profession, older generations feel the industry’s future is questionable. It is owing to a lack of young farmers wanting to continue in their forefathers’ footsteps. Even in Sri Lanka, where traditions and culture are vital to lifestyle, the younger generation wants to make money in ways that are more convenient than toiling hard under the blistering heat.
Another explanation for the potential drop in future farmers is the widely held belief that agriculture is an unprofitable industry. But the question is whether, even though grape cultivation in the northern province appears to be doing well right now, the sector will endure once the present generation of farmers dies, or will it simply become another memento more?
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(Veidehi Gite is an Indian traveller with a passion for photography. She is also the Editor in Chief of Krazy Butterfly.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Partnersincrave.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)