Berry Green

Amla in the Times of Blueberry Cheesecake

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India’s long-neglected health fruit is enjoying its moment in the sun

SALEM, TAMIL NADU ~ Driving uphill along a gravelly red track, Arun Nagarajan almost crashes into clouds of butterflies at every curve. Averting collisions, the butterflies swerve away in dazzling flashes of crimson, yellow and blue. Nagarajan, who runs The Yendal Farm Nursery, and we are ascending towards his amla estate, perched on Tamil Nadu’s Palani foothills. When he cuts the engine, we find ourselves staring at rows of tall fluted trees, studded with green berries.

Traditionally a jungle tree, amla has always functioned as an open-air pharmacy—curing colds, toning the liver, purifying blood and boosting immunity. These natural nutraceutical values are bred into the hybrid varieties here at Yendal Farm. Looking at the canopy, Nagarajan asks, “Who’d believe this was a wasteland where you couldn’t find a twig?” Even he can’t believe it’s showering him with unimagined earnings, sweet birdsong and rivers of fruit nectar to run his 500-tonne processing factory.

Eaten whole, an amla functions as a mouth-silencer, making your lips pucker and tongue twitch as the tart juice goes down your gullet. At Yendal each year, they harvest 40–150 kg of fruit per tree. With 200 trees to an acre, there’s a yearly fruit fortune of Rs 1.6 lakh per acre being plucked off a wasteland whose only saleable commodity used to be gravel.

As India staggers from one agricultural crisis to the next, it’s the antique ayurvedic amla, steadily sexed up by science, that’s becoming a viable superfood.  “It provides income to farmers, enhances community health and delivers profits to the food processing industry,” says HP Singh, deputy director general at Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi.

This hardy plant is capable of rooting itself in hostile soils where nothing viable can grow. “Amla is saving our people, saving water and bringing smiles to the faces of small farmers,” says Sreekant Mehta, president of the Aonla Growers Association of India (yes, it prefers to spell ‘aonla’ so). Currently, there are more than 17,500 million hectares under amla cultivation. That amounts to much more when counted as vertical acreage.

This nutri-fruit is also changing lives. “Farmers come to us in tears, saying amla incomes have helped send their children to school,” says Mehta. Though fees are waived at government schools, you still need to scrounge Rs 6,000 for books and tuitions. Due to its curative powers, The Department of Ayush (of the Ministry of Health) and Aonla Growers Association of India have launched a campaign designed around the slogan: ‘Have you had an amla today?’

Amla’s rise hasn’t been without casualties. Tamil Nadu’s fortunes have hurt Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, India’s former amla capital. The north just reaps a winter crop. The south, blessed by equitable weather, is pulling off a botanical miracle of continual harvests. Here, each branch hangs heavy with green fruit and pinkish white flowers simultaneously. This keeps the picker’s hands busy almost every month of the year, harvesting these green golf balls while standing atop 10-ft-high metal ladders. 

“We controlled 80 per cent of amla production till three years ago,” rues Alok Khandelwal, an amla processor based in Pratapgarh. Due to price fixing by chyawanprash makers, extortion and neglect, the Pratapgarh amla economy has collapsed. “Amlas earn Rs 2 on the head and Rs 4 in the market,” says Khandelwal.

“In north India, they grow amla; in south India, we cultivate it,” explains Mehta. At Yendal they start scientifically with amla grafts (two plants spliced together so that they bud sooner than regular saplings). To enrich the inferior soil, they dig pits of 27 cubic ft for each tree. This is layered with a part each of red earth, alluvial loam and farmyard manure. That’s when the grafts go in. Before the monsoon comes another layer of love. Horsegram and suspenia are planted around the trees. These spring up like a green garland around the treelings after the rains, providing a nitrogen fix. Finally, fertigation with zinc and boron add micro-nutrients to the depleted soil.

These inputs and care keep the trees in bloom. As they break into fruit, bamboo supports are placed under the heavy boughs. Harvesting is delicate; amlas are only picked if the stalk yields from the stem without a yank. After picking, the produce goes into gunny bags lined with paper. This forms a soft shield between the fruit, protecting it from road ruts while being trucked to distant markets.

Every year, 54 tonnes of fruit reach Nagarajan’s factory, where his Ju-C label is pasted on squashes, pickles and a sugar-free drink. Amla preserves, doused in forest honey, are sun dried for a week. (Processing does not deplete its curative powers.) When packed in 100 gm plastic pouches and priced at Rs 35, the sunned-sweetened fruit has a long shelf-life. And the factory churns profit. “People who laughed at me for planting this poor man’s fruit that sells outside village schools are now coming to me for saplings,” says Nagarajan.

Mehta didn’t plan on becoming an amla evangelist. Some 15 years ago, “while driving in Tamil Nadu, I’d see blank areas that distressed me,” he says. “I wondered what could grow here.” He just tossed an amla pit into his fields. Today these trees have struck deep root in Tamil Nadu. Around Salem, there’s been a change of landscape. The Shevaroy Hills are the only place in India where at an elevation of 4,000 ft you can spot these green fruit growing above red coffee buds. Amla has also taken centrestage in small two-acre holdings like Mangeshnath’s. 

Another accidental amlapati, Mangeshnath stands under a tree laden with a reddish-yellow amla variant. The fruit cache from this tree will fetch him Rs 1,200 when plucked. Holding onto a branch, he says, “Last year, this acre got me Rs 70,000.” For a former forest guard, this income supplement pays for luxuries like a dish TV. Even his sheep are enjoying the benefits, nibbling on wispy leaves and fallen fruit, topping up on vitamins and antioxidants.  

Around Salem, nurseries, farms and amla-processing units have been springing up. Like TVN Health Products. This 3,900 sq ft factory opened a month ago. Here, aproned and hair-netted workers wearing black and yellow gumboots crank up a steel crusher. It chews up 200 kg of amla, spitting fruit meat and seed onto a tray. Shouting over the din, Managing Director S Vivek says, “We can process 500 litres of juice in a day.”

As a 40 tonne hydraulic press bears down, making juice gush into waiting barrels, Vivek says, “Bankers mocked me, saying ‘Who invests Rs 49 lakh in amla processing?’ I warned them, ‘Don’t degrade my product’.”

The bankers ought to visit Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Maharashtra. With a Rs 25 lakh subsidy from the National Horticulture Board and Rs 1 crore of their own, they’ve greened 142 acres with amla. The first ten quintals of amla processed in-house earned Rs 1.5 lakh.   

It has also kept people out of clinics. In Gujarat’s Mehsana district, an amla concoction has brought down medical bills by 60 per cent, claims Singh. Those who fear this tart medicine have options. You can eat it as you like—raw, sweet, juiced or spiced. There’s even a diabetic amla barfi sweetened with Stevia. Beyond the traditional trinity of murabba, chyawanprash and hair oil, there are over 160 amla health and beauty products on market shelves today. The miracle berry has even taken root abroad. An African-American hair website has testimonials from women about amla’s miraculous effect on their tresses. 

Society here is still catching up with this agri-boom. Last year, when Nagarajan reported a theft in his orchards, the bewildered superintendent of police asked “You’re reporting amla chori?” To deter thieves, he’s installed an electric fence. But even that Rs 1.5 lakh barrier isn’t enough; “Thieves tunnel under the fence,” he says. Word of the wonder fruit has gotten around, evidently.