Mr. C J Prabhakar – Business opportunities in silkworm farming

Whether you seek additional income from your agricultural plot or if you seek better opportunities, silk rearing can perhaps be your answer

Mr. C J Prabhakar, Retd Scientist, Central Silk Board, Bangalore has, over the years, served as Research Assistant, Research Officer, Deputy Director and as Scientist-D in Research Institutes, Silkworm Seed Laboratory, National Silkworm Seed Organisation and Muga & Eri Silkworm Seed Organisation. He has published over 25 research papers as author and co-author in science journals, conferences and periodicals. Mr. Prabhakar has also presented 2 papers at the 2010 International Wild Silk Moth Conference, Tokyo.

Today, he works as an independent consultant to reputed international consultant companies, NGOs at Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and International Insect Food groups. Through his body of work, Mr. Prabhakar strives to effectively disseminate the knowledge and experience he has amassed over 3 decades in sericulture development into planning, implementation and monitoring with critical analysis for local fine tuning in Mulberry, Eri and Muga sericulture.

Excerpts from a recent interview.

To start off can you introduce us to the world of sericulture?
Sure. Sericulture is an agro-based textile industry, with distinct sections –feeding-the-silk worms section, rearing-the-silk section and the weaving section. The first two fall under the agricultural sector, while the third is part of the textile industry.
There are 4 different types of silkworms that we grow in India:
Mulberry Silk: This is most common among the 4 types of silks. The silkworms feed on mulberry leaves.
Tasar Silk – This is a forest-based production because these worms feed on fern, which grow in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa and Chattisgarh.
Eri Silk – Here the feeding crop is the castor plant, which is common in the North Eastern part of India. This is a small and secondary activity of farmers in Assam. About 3-3.5 lakh families produce Eri silk to generate a secondary income.
Muga Silk: Muga silk is golden silk and it is exclusively produced only in a few north eastern states of India. Assam is the main producer and total production doesn’t exceed 100 metric tonnes per annum. This output varies year on year. The plant that required here Som, which is mainly grown in Assam and it is quite local to that area.

Does the species of worm also differ? Or, is it just the plant that makes all the difference?
Silk worm species also differ – yes! Mulberry silk is produced by a silkworm called bombyx mori and muga by antheraea assamensis. Eri is produced by samia cynthia ricini and tasar by antheraea mylitta. India tops in the production of Eri and Muga silks. In fact, we are the only producers of Muga silk.

What are the business opportunities for new entrepreneurs? Or, is this activity restricted to tiny or medium scale farmers?
Mulberry silk production is one of the most viable and fruitful commercial activities. It is a cash crop of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the South and West Bengal in the West. Silk production serves as income for nearly 5 lakh farmers. Farmers tend to earn at least 5-6 lakh a year, which is not easily possible with other agricultural/horticultural crops. Once the mulberry crop is planted, it will sustain for about 25 years, if maintained well. The plants for silk production can be maintained in the form of trees or shrubs. In Southern India, the crop is maintained in the form of a shrub. The branches are cut and fed to the worms. This is called branch method of feeding. Every 2-3 months, the branches are ready for harvest. The good news is that farmers who face limitation of water – those who cannot plant sugar cane or paddy – can switch to mulberry cultivation. Once farmers have mastered the art of silk rearing, it stands to be one of the most fruitful among agricultural produces.

Is it the farmers who grow the mulberry that rear the silkworms as well?
Yes, they do both. Simply growing mulberry won’t fetch you much profits.

On an average, what kind of income can a farmer make from say, an acre of land?
In 1 acre of land, for instance, the initial investment will be around
Rs. 30,000/- and by the 6th or 8th month, the crop will be ready for harvesting – that is the first month’s story. In the months that follow, the harvesting time shorten. That is from a 1acre garden you can rear about 200 DFLs (disease free laying). 1 moth lays close to 500-600 eggs. This is termed as one DFL. Likewise, in a 1 acre garden about 200 DFLs can be reared and from 200 DFLs, you can easily rear about 120 – 130 kgs of cocoons. Each g can fetch you about Rs. 250-400. This means that from one acre of land you can make a gross income of about 6.4 lakhs. Almost 60% will flow out as expenses if there is hired labor etc. So, in short, a farmer can earn a net income of about 1 lakh from an acre of land through sericulture.

How many acres of land would you advise people to begin with?
We would advise to start small. It is ideal to start on a 1 acre plot. The thing is bigger the size, it is easy to lose focus. It is best to start small, master the technicalities and then expand. Silk worms are very sensitive to humidity, temperature, winds, everything. So, one has to master how to balance everything, plan for adverse natural conditions, diseases etc. With technological interventions, losing crops have become a rarity but yes, it is important to master the art before plunging into large scale production. In Karnataka, people involved in sericulture are doing very well – esp. the farms in Kolar, Ramanagara, Mico District, etc. For generations they have been dependent on sericulture and are still doing very well.

What kind of government subsidies exist for sericulture?
The government has pampered the sericulture industry with subsidies. Karnataka pioneered the sericulture department about 100 years ago followed by Tamil Nadu and Andhra governments. Currently, all subsidies are owned by the state governments. Central government subsidies are limited to only certain activities like silk production and weaving activities – mainly to do with the textile industry.
The subsidies provided by the government will meet planting requirements, first and second year maintenance, labor requirements, etc. Additionally, to rear these worms, we need rearing houses. For a 1 acre plot we will need 25 to 40 ft rearing house, which comes to about Rs. 1.5 lakhs unit cost. For this you get a subsidy of about 50%. You get subsidies for the equipment as well. Having said that, the government will cater to subsidies in its own time and style. So, it is wise to have sufficient funds in hand without waiting for government subsidy. So, start with the money you have or avail a bank loan rather than just depending on subsidy.
Also, for those interested, there are farmers’ training units at various locations. There are district training centers in Karnataka. The agriculture department also has some training schools. Chintamani has an exclusive sericulture college. In Mysore we have Central Silk Board (CSB) institute. In most of the places – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra there are district sericulture offices that houses modal officers who facilitate subsidies, planning, etc.

Can bank loans be availed for these projects?
Yes, it can. This may require an evaluation and project documentation.

Mr. Prabhakar, what are you focused on off late?
I retired in the late 2016. Even prior to my retirement, I was extending services to a few NGOs. Generally NGOs will require support in planning the activity and at locations they plan to implement it. Usually support is required because farmers will not have much information on sericulture. I educate them about the advantages; more than the advantages, I had to make clear of the requirements. NGOs also reach out when they have issues at places where sericulture activities already exist.
For example, in one state some farmers were motivated to take up sericulture only because the subsidy was very high. They compared it with the subsidy they would otherwise get. If instead of focusing on the subsidy they focused on the plantation, they would have earned lots more. From my experience I know that on an average a person can comfortably earn about 50-60 thousand rupees per garden. Outside Karnataka there are markets for cocoons. They have a huge market in Ramanagara. They handle about 30 – 50 tonnes of cocoons per day. Close to 13000 – 15000 farmers bring their cocoons there.

How about the scope for entrepreneurs? Does this field have any such avenues?
With respect to entrepreneur activities, we have:
Chawki Rearing Centers: That is small silkworms will be reared in naphthalene plants – we call these silkworm naphthalene plants. Silkworms in the first 10 days requires the perfect climatic conditions. That is provided by these exclusive centers. They work on about six thousand DFLS at a time with 20-25 farmers and then they sell it. This is a popular entrepreneurial set up. We have around ten thousand chawki centres in Karnataka now. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu also have similar centers popping up. You should have the facility and 20-25 farmers to start such a set up.
Mulberry Nursery: This is yet another entrepreneurial activity that one can pursue. A 1 acre nursery can cater to plantlets that can serve for 20-30 acres of plantation.

With your experience and accumulated knowledge, people must be contacting you for various guidance and help, isn’t it? What kind of enquiries do you normally get?
Yes, I do and it’s a mixed bag of queries.
Majority of the queries come from those who are new to the industry. They will have basic questions. For example, if their land is suitable or not, what is the investment they will need to be ready with, etc.
Then there are NGOs who will want to introduce sericulture at some place and will need help to understand how to go about it, plan it and implement it.
Existing farmers who run into problems in the first year of cultivation also gets in touch with me.
Once they start and get settled, for disease problems and all, quite frankly within the
Mysore-Bangalore premises we have 100s of retired people who are helping around. My presence may not be required there. They can take care of things by themselves; unless they are totally new to the subject.

If someone contacts you saying they are interested in sericulture but they want to spend a few days to look around. Would you be open to rendering that kind of support?
I understand. In Japan, there is a person who annually conducts silk tours. From various countries people go there and an approximately 15-day tour to places of sericulture plantations, is organised.
To be frank, our sericulture department is very active. If you just write to them that you need exposure to a certain place for sericulture cultivation etc., usually the Central Silk Board will make appropriate arrangements.
I am certainly open to these things. But so far, such enquiries are a rarity. People can even be introduced to farmers who can share facts on how it can be grown and marketed etc. In fact, if they are interested in knowing the professional working pattern, we can take them to the most professional of farmers.

Do you feel there is anything that we may not have covered in our conversation today?
I would like to add a few things:
For those interested and have many questions looming in their head, here are 5 points that they can help resolve their dilemma:
The Land: The land that they have earmarked for this project should be even. A 10-15% slope is permissible, but highly uneven land is neither permissible nor conducive for sericulture. For availing subsidy, the land should be in the name of the requestor. Subsidy cannot be availed by tenants.
Water Resource: The land should have access to a water source, like a pool or a well. There should be a year-round supply of water. Drip irrigation also works. The amount of water required is less than that required by sugar cane or paddy, but about 3 times more than that required by dry crops like jowar, ragi etc. If the water is slightly acidic in nature, it works well.
Keep Away from Toxins: The proposed land should not be in proximity to any toxin-emitting factories or tobacco plantations. It should be neither in proximity to plantations that require heavy dosages of pesticides like cotton, tea, coffee etc. nor near stone quarries or highly polluted areas.
Electricity Supply: The land should have a steady supply of electricity for temperature maintenance etc.
Approachability: Easy approachability to the road is desirable because the silk worms should be fed late in the evenings and early in the morning. So approachability is very desirable.
Limitations:
Labor: Labor availability is a huge requirement. That is why it is not feasible, for example, in Kerala. Kerala’s labor cost is high and the labor class there can be very demanding. If the labor cost is high, your breakeven will be far fetched dream. If you can have family labor, it will be extremely good.
Temperature: Optimum temperature or huge temperature variations can prove bad for sericulture. In summer, if temperatures are above 30-35 degree Celsius or if winters are too cold like in Ooty or Coorg, the mulberry plant will not thrive.
Whoever wants to know more information, please check for state government published websites. These are maintained by the state agricultural department. These sites will have useful and latest information on subsidies and all.
Also, if a group of around 10 people or an NGO want to get introduced to sericulture they can directly contact me at any time. A group is always better than individuals. Also, a group is better when it comes to labor sharing activities. So, if a group of 10 start with around 15-20 acres of land, it can be better managed. That, according to me, is a sustainable project as well.

C.J. Prabhakar,
Sericulture Expert
SCIENTIST –D (Rtrd),CENTRAL SILK BOARD , MADIVALA, BANGALORE-INDIA 560064
Corresponding Address: C.J.PRABHAKAR, No.1189,, 2nd Main, Srirampura 2 nd stage, Mysore-570023.
Ph: +91 821 2364599, +91 8618168927(m), E mail:-prabhakarcj@gmail.com