Ramakanth Hegde – Karnataka farmer specializes in Sigandhini black pepper cultivation

Give us a brief introduction about your involvement in agricultural activities.
I am Ramakanth Hegde. I come from a village of Siddapur taluk, a district in North Karnataka. I am 62 years old.
I have 2 acres of land where we cultivate arecanuts, betelnuts, coconuts, vanilla and nutmeg. I also have two varieties of black pepper. I have been cultivating pepper since the last 30 years. About 25 years back, all pepper corns dried up except two creepers – they were Sigandhini creepers.
Knowing about this variety from Mr Dadasaheb Desai, Asst. Horticulture Office at Siddapur Taluk, Dr M N Venugopal, the then senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR) visited our farm. Dr Venugopal is currently Retd. Senior Scientist from ICAR New Delhi. He took these varieties for lab testing and found that this is the best variety of pepper. He then studied about this variety extensively. He then suggested that I grow this variety and encouraged me to start a nursery unit. That is how I started a nursery unit 5 years back.
I have been distributing saplings through my nursery. So far, I have distributed nearly one lakh saplings to various farmers.
Many scientists and professors from different centres of India have visited my farm. Many importers from Croatia from other countries and exporters from Hyderabad have visited our farm. They are equally impressed by the quality of the Sigandhini variety of black pepper.
The exporters offered premium prices for the white and black peppers.
This year too we had a lot of heavy rains and crops got diseased. I supplied Sigandhini saplings to all those who contacted me.

How is it that you were able to cultivate this new variety of black pepper?
Honestly, many farmers have tried cultivating new pepper varieties. New varieties get released from IISR, Kozhikode and Panniyur Research Station (PSR).
In my case, what happened is, I had a local variety which grew on my field. I identified this variety and tended to the crop as well. Actually, I only discovered this variety and took care of it like I take care of all my crops, not knowing that this is a real special variety. Then, after Dr Venugopal certified the product, I started distributing this variety to other farmers through my nursery.

So, is the Sigandhini variety now cultivated by most farmers in that area?
Yes, it has become highly popular in the Malenadu area. I am not sure if you have heard of TATA Estate in Kerala – they have also cultivated this variety and they have done it on a very large scale.

Tell me more about the Sigandhini pepper.
The Black Pepper variety Sigandhini is a woody climber and may reach heights of 10-14 metres on Arecanut standard by means of its aerial roots. The small flowers are in dense slender spikes of about 80-90 blossoms each, spike length is around 18-19 cm and spike weight is about 17-19 grams. Berry setting in spike is medium lose with 80-85 berries present in each spike. Fresh weight of 100 berries is 39.16 grams and after drying it is 7.51 grams. They become yellowish red at maturity and bear a single seed. Their odour is penetrating and aromatic; the taste is hot, biting, and very pungent.
Fresh berry yield of Sigandhini variety is 9.25 kg per vine, after drying it is about 3.55 kg per vine, recovery of black and white pepper is 39.16 and 29.80 per cent respectively. Sigandhini variety has good quality parameters as compared to other varieties. Ground black pepper contains up to 2.62 per cent of essential oil, 6.82% oleoresin and 640 gram/litre bulk density were observed in this variety. Performance of Sigandhini variety is also confirmed through post graduate research, University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkot.
The plant requires a long rainy season, fairly high temperature, and partial shade for best growth. Propagation is usually by stem cuttings, which are set out near a tree or a pole (runner shoots) that will serve as a support. Pepper vines are trailed on Arecanut, Silver oak and shade trees maintained in Tea and Coffee plantations. They begin bearing in 2 to 5 years and have productive life of 20 to 40 years. This variety has a capacity to survive in different locations of India.

Are you selling this variety?
I sell it.

Has the discovery of the new variety helped you?
Yes, I reaped benefits. But my aim is that I help in any way possible to reduce the burden of losses that farmers keep facing.

What are the issues with respect to black pepper cultivation?
The main problem is the heavy rainfall. Pepper cannot survive heavy rain falls. The common disease that this crop catches is the slow wilt and quick wilt diseases. Wilt disease is a major problem.
Getting good quality pepper is another issue. If the bulk density does not adhere to set standards then the crop doesn’t fetch you profits.
For export quality pepper, they require bulk density to be 550 grams per litre of bulk density. The Sigandhini variety gives a bulk density more than the prescribed 550 grams. It is about 640 grams per litre. So the demand is high in the export market because of its superior quality.

Are black pepper and white pepper two different variety crops?
No, depending upon how the pepper crop gets processed, you get black and white pepper. Pepper can be processed in two ways:
1. It can be processed by drying the produce in a controlled atmosphere. That is the produce is dried under the Sun using EV sheets and black Polythene sheets. Processing it this way, gives you black pepper.
2. To get white pepper, they take ripened pepper berries and process it by storing it in a bag. It is then soaked in water for a week. This will cause it to ferment and the upper coat wears off. That is how you get the white-coloured kernel from the inside. This is then dried in the shade before storage and sale.
Owing to the difference in processing, white pepper costs more than black pepper.

How about the marketing of this product and the market prices?
We have compared the market price with many other local farmers. The Sigandhini variety has managed to fetch us as much as double the price compared to what other varieties got us.
We even got better prices than the new varieties that were developed by other institutions like Panniyur, etc.

The Sigandhini variety is not affected by the wilting disease, right?
Yes, Sir. All the problems that we faced with other varieties of pepper vanished with the Sigandhini variety. It fetches a good price as well.

Is the high price of the Sigandhini variety because of its quality?
Yes, absolutely! The good prices are because of the quality and amazing bulk density. Bulk density is a major check point when checking for pepper’s quality.

What would you like me to highlight in particular about your cultivation?
I would like as many people as possible, to know about this variety of black pepper, so that it is helpful to many other farmers. We have noticed that Sigandhini crop thrives well in shade or sun. I’d like to spread the word about the Sigandhini variety and motivate others to farm it because it removes all the earlier issues faced by pepper farmers.

Is there anything the government can do to help farmers like you?
The government has helped us by coming up with a lot of schemes. They have provided us with bio fertilizers for our crops. The nursery unit that I came up with was granted by the government.

Do you mean you got something like a subsidy?
Yes, it was a subsidy. This variety is now under registration under the PPV FRA.

What is the benefit through this registration?
Once registered, I get a chance to be awarded with some honorary price money.
I will you also get IP rights in this variety.

Have other farmers come up with new varieties similar to this?
Fortunately I am blessed to be the first person. Now that I have distributed the planting material, of course and now many farmers are cultivating it. Off late, I got to know that coffee and tea estates grow pepper as well.

Do you get any benefits from the other people who have purchased this crop from you?
No, that cannot happen. If they claim that the variety I came up with is actually theirs then it becomes a problem. So, he is keeping a check on it and so has decided to register the product. There is no other objective behind getting the product registered.

You should get full credit for developing this product.
Yes, true. That is the sole reason for getting into registration of the product.

Is there a provision to give farmers that kind of registration rights?
Yes. We can register under a Central Government body called Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmer’s Rights Authorities (PPV FRA), New Delhi.

What are your future plans?
Currently, I have developed the Sigandhini variety in Arecanuts. Similarly, I plan to cultivate it on Silver Oak and hope to establish this Sigandhini variety in fields that belong to good farmers.

Nowadays agriculture has become difficult. What do you think about farming and its future?
My daughter is a software engineer and son is a doctor and I achieved their future from agriculture. I have full faith in this industry – it will not fail me or anybody else. In future I hope my son will take up agriculture as a profession because it gives us so much peace of mind.

Ramakant Ramchandra Hegde
Village: Kalkatte-Hunsekoppa
Taluk: Siddapur
Dist: Uttarakannada
Mob: 9480776208