Fruits

Explained: Why lemons are so costly now

Over the last few weeks, the price of lemon has touched unprecedented highs, with a single lemon retailing between Rs 10 and Rs 15 in most markets. A look at how much lemon is grown in the country, what has led to the price hike, and where the prices could possibly be headed:

How much lemon is grown in the country, and where?

The fruit is grown in orchards spanning a combined 3.17 lakh hectares across the country. Lemon trees flower and give fruit three times a year. Andhra Pradesh is the largest lemon-growing state with 45,000 hectares under the fruit. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha and Tamil Nadu are the other major lemon-growing states.

What is known as nimbu in Hindi comes under two broad categories: lemon and lime. The small, round and thin-skinned kaagzi is the mostly commonly grown variety in the country. Lime, on the other hand, refers to the dark green fruits that are grown commercially in North India and the Northeast, with varieties such as the gondhoraj in West Bengal being locally well-known.

Annually, India produces over 37.17 lakh tonnes of the fruit, which is consumed domestically. The fruit is neither exported or imported.

A warm, moderately dry and moist climate is the most suitable for the fruit, with heavy rainfall inducing bacterial diseases in orchards. Plants are grown through grafting, with the Nagpur-headquartered ICAR Central Citrus Research Institute (CCRI) and various state agricultural institutes maintaining quality root stocks. Farmers normally plant 210-250 lemon trees on an acre, and orchards yield their first harvest after three years of planting. On an average, a single tree yields around 1,000-1,500 fruits.

The price of lemons in some cities on Wednesday

What is the fruit’s cycle?

Farmers supply the fruit round the year by inducing flowering through what is known as the ‘bahar treatment’, said Dr AA Murkute, principal scientist for the CCRI. In this treatment, farmers withhold irrigation and spray chemicals, prune the orchards, and then resume fertiliser treatment and irrigation, which subsequently leads to flowering and thus to fruit formation.

Lemon growers take three bahars in a year — known as Ambe, Mrig and Hasta, and named based on the season when the flowering is induced. During the Ambe bahar, flowering starts in January-February with fruit formation happening from April. During the Mrig bahar, orchards bloom during June-July, and the harvest happens in October. The Hasta bahar involves flowering in September-October, with harvest happening post March. These bahars overlap, and thus farmers have fruit round the year to market.

Dr Murkute said almost 60% of the crop that feeds the market is harvested from the Ambe bahar, while the Mrig bahar contributes 30% and the Hasta bahar the rest. Most of the Mrig bahar fruit is initially sent to cold storage, while fresh fruits from the other two bahars are retailed.

How much have prices risen?

In Pune’s wholesale market, a 10-kg bag of lemon is selling at Rs 1,750 at present. A 10-kg bag normally contains 350-380 lemons, so the price of a single lemon now costs Rs 5. The retail price of a single lemon in Pune is around Rs 10-15. This, traders say, is the highest ever price the nimbu has ever commanded in this market, and it is mainly due to extremely low arrivals. Pune’s market normally reports around 3,000 bags of 10 kg each, but now the arrivals are barely 1,000 bags.

In markets such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, the fruit is selling at wholesale rates of Rs 120, Rs 60, and Rs 180 respectively per kg, up from Rs 100, Rs 40 and Rs 90 a kg a month ago.

What is the reason for the hike?

One of the main reasons is the failure of the Hasta bahar and the subsequent Ambe bahar. Across the country, the monsoon was exceptionally good last year, but the months of September and October had brought exceptionally heavy rains. Lemon orchards are extremely sensitive to excess moisture and thus, due to the heavy rainfall, the bahar treatment failed and flowering did not happen. This fruit is normally kept in cold storage and marketed until the next fruit from the Ambe bahar arrives. Due to a significantly lower harvest this time, farmers had lower yields to store.

The Ambe bahar fruit also suffered from unseasonal rain, with farmers reporting a drop in flowering during the initial phases. Since the end of February, soaring temperatures too have hit the crop, causing the younger fruits to drop off. For the summer, when the demand for lemon hits an all-year high, the stored Hasta bahar and fresh Ambe bahar fruits feed the market. But the double whammy has hit production.

Farmers and traders said this would be the one of the rarest years when two consecutive bahars have failed. Across the country, prices of lemon have crossed record high levels due to the low arrivals.

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When will the market see a correction in prices?

Chances of an immediate price correction are dim, with traders ruling out any immediate improvement in arrivals. The next crop that can be expected to reach the market will be ready only after October, and only then would arrivals improve significantly. At present, some arrivals from the Ambe bahar are expected from areas where the flowering has not been hit to a large extent. Even that arrival, however, is not expected to be enough to meet the demand.

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