A huge curiosity less than 90 years ago, a good looking red fruit has taken Mahabaleshwar by storm. With more local farmers taking to growing strawberries every year, this western hill station now contributes almost 85 percent of India's total production.
Mahabaleshwar was the perfect summer getaway for the Bombay province during the British Raj. Located 120 km from Pune and 250 km from Mumbai, this resort town, situated on a plateau, is not just picture perfect, it is also a welcome change from the sticky Mumbai summer.
In the 1920s it was here that the English first introduced strawberries to India.
Krishna Seth Balhare, now a strawberry farmer here, fondly recalls tales his grandfather told.
"There was a huge curiosity back then about this red fruit which the British used to grow in their kitchen gardens. The Indians had no clue about this interesting fruit, meant only for the British Saab."
Balhare recounted: "It was called the Australian Strawberry. But for farmers here, clueless about its taste, it was just a good-looking red fruit. Only around 1960, the Mahabaleshwar farmer received his first 100 saplings of the strawberry plant."
One strawberry plant can propagate 20 more, so from the 1960's till 1992, the Australian variety of strawberry was grown in Mahabaleshwar in about 130 acres of land with an output afforded only by the affluent.
However, in 1992, came a strawberry revolution.
Recollects Mahendra Pangare, another farmer from Mahabaleshwar: "A businessman brought the Chandler variety of the plant from California. This variety produced a much bigger and better tasting fruit."
Around that time, recall these farmers, then Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar ordered 25,000 saplings of the plant from California and strawberry farming started gaining ground -- from 600 acres then to 2,000 acres now in Mahabaleshwar alone.
The area annually produces some 15,000 tonnes of the fruit.
Ramchandra Sanaba Shelke, agriculture supervisor in the state Department of Agriculture, says: " Mahabaleshwar earlier grew lots of potatoes. But strawberry farming has now become very popular among farmers here."
"I was a sales agent for a local jam-manufacturing company. The job gave me just about Rs.3,000 to 4,000 a month consuming all my energy. So I decided to start farming my land in Mahabaleshwar. I started strawberry farming... my whole family supports me... all of us live and work at the farm," says Pangare.
Strawberry farmers of Mahbaleshwar have formed support groups to help and educate one another.
"In Mexico, 20 tonnes of strawberries are produced in one acre while in California the figure goes up to 22 tonnes. We also want to take our production to at least 15 tonnes per acre," says Balhare who has this year sent his first export consignment of 600 tonnes of the fruit to Belgium.
More young people are taking up strawberry farming in this region. As a result one can see farms with latest farming techniques such as drip irrigation and mulching being used.
Organic farming is yet another area where Mahabaleshwar farmers are taking a lead. Farmers adhere to the Euro Gap Certification where pesticides are sprayed the least.
Today, with the region offering the perfect weather conditions for growing strawberries, there are some 1,350 strawberry farmers in Mahabaleshwar producing 87 percent of the Indian fruit crop.
But the increased supply of the fruit in the market has depressed prices. And this is a cause for concern for the farmers.
"These days, we are getting just Rs.35 per kg while two years ago we used to get Rs.250 per kg. Three years ago, if I invested Rs.250,000 I would get back Rs.500,000, " says Pangare.
Balhare, however, says: "The only way to earn more from strawberries is by producing more."
And that, he says, is possible by spreading more awareness about the fruit.
In California, 94 percent of the households consume strawberries but in India only eight percent of the households are strawberry-eaters. "In India, even if we have a one percent increase in strawberry consumption, it will be big," avers Balhare.
Because of severe cold, there was a bumper crop this year.
And Balhare says: "Marketing the bumper crop is always a challenge but the recent trend of malls and big retail chains has been beneficial for the farmers. Reliance comes to our village and buys directly from us... they give us 25 percent more than the other wholesalers in Mumbai."