May 30, 2008
Lucknow and Barabanki,
“Mentha arvensis is not exactly pudina, the variety of mint commonly used in kitchens,” S.P.S. Khanuja, Director, CIMAP, tells me. “It’s the feedstock for an essential oil that contains menthol, the substance that finds application in FMCG, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and other products.”
Since 1993, when CIMAP started its “Improved Technology for Menthol Mint Essential Oil Project”, India has become the largest producer of menthol mint oil in the world, overtaking China. With a production of about 17,000 tonnes, the country now commands a 78 per cent share of the annual global output of menthol mint oil.
At Muzzarfar Mau village, we (BT photographer Shekhar Kumar Ghosh and I) learn how the mint economy has established itself in the farms and marketplaces of the district. Rakesh Kumar, a 31-yearold farmer, shows us his two-hectare farm, half of which he uses to grow the Kosi variety of mint that has a crop cycle of 90-95 days. He transplanted the “suckers” (the mentha roots that he sources once every two years from CIMAP) in March and will harvest the crop by the second week of June. As harvesting progresses, he will start putting his crop into the steam distillation unit that he has sourced from CIMAP and installed in his farm to produce the oil. Depending on a number of factors, including cultivar used, time of planting and harvesting, and climate, 20-40 tonnes of herbage will produce 125-200 kg per hectare of essential oil.The marketing of mint oil isn’t a problem; Kumar can either sell it to traders and commission agents, who visit the farms looking for the commodity, or take it to the nearby mandi at Masauli. The buyers will test his oil and pay him according to the percentage content of menthol.
Last year, Kumar produced about 60 kg of oil and got a price of Rs 490 per kg. His turnover was, thus, Rs 29,400. His costs— including procuring suckers, irrigation, disease control, fertilisers, payments to farm hands, etc.—did not exceed 50 per cent of his turnover, thus ensuring a neat profit.Ram Lakhan (35) and Rajendra Prasad (35), also farmers and Kumar’s neighbours, say they both are growing mint for 9-10 years and earning good profits. Khanuja points out that the price discovery for mint oil has improved since his institute began working with commodity exchanges like MCX and NCDEX to develop a system of fixing prices according to the content of menthol.
Elsewhere in Barabanki, we meet more mint farmers. Beni Prasad (70) and his son Ram Chander at Dalyan Pur village and Shri Kishan (48) and his son Rajkumar in Kinwadi say they have been growing mentha along with two food crops for several years.“Mentha requires good irrigation, which we have in Barabanki. Extracting the oil is also easy. If we don’t have our own distillation unit, we rent it from a neighbouring farmer. Selling the oil is also easy,” says Ram Chander.
Uttar Pradesh, the leader in mint cultivation (farmers in Bihar are now aggressively bringing larger areas under mint cultivation), is also facing its share of problems, notably a mandi tax of 2.5 per cent imposed by the state government on mint oil.
Farmers and traders have been up in arms against the move. “The mandi tax will put UP out of business. Bihar will gain at the cost of UP,” says Kapoor Babu Gupta of Gupta Suppliers, a large buyer of mint oil.
Having met the farmers who’ve benefitted from mint farming, one hopes the state government will pay heed to their problems.