The inherent curiosity of the human mind to explore, experiment, and try out new food is at the core of our human societies. In the last few years, there has been a strawberry boom in Northeast India. Started by individual farmers, the surge in demand for this red dotted tangy-sweet fruit has received the attention of government departments as well. There are ongoing interventions and workshops by state horticultural departments and scientists as this new crop occupies a special place in the Northeast palate. It is true that strawberry farms are simultaneously keeping entrepreneurs, traders, and scientists busy in Northeast India. The emerging farms and niche market for this fruit in the eastern Himalayan region highlight a changing pattern of crop selection, food choices, and livelihood opportunities.
Reports from farmers on the ground inform us how unseasonal rain, drought, and pests in the last two decades or more have led to crop loss. In some cases, subsistence farmers have turned their farms into plantations for rubber, tea, and areca nuts. In other instances, households have stopped farming altogether and opted to lease out their lands to seasonal farmers. Under such circumstances, farmers were embracing new crops such as strawberry. What was the story behind these developments on the ground? The answer, we believe, are grounded in the everyday lives of producing, consuming, and encountering new tastes. Away from stories of large infrastructure, cold storage, or a well-oiled supply chain network, accounts of new crops in Northeast India tell lived accounts of adaptability and curiosity. Strawberry in Northeast India, therefore, tells us an important story about community persistence and adaptability.
Often accounts that appear as ‘small’ like strawberry in comparison to the ‘big’ stories of development such as dams sit uncomfortably in the grand scheme of intellectual pursuits. We feel that it is precisely such distinctions that lead to erasure of ‘small’ developments that stem from what appears as trivial initiatives. Social sciences is often attracted to big stories where there is comprehensive literature and research materials. Thereby, reinforcing dominant epistemological frameworks. After all, development models of centre-periphery in relation to studying Northeast India reduce everything else as marginal. Unless relationships and networks are incorporated into the development, remoteness, and progress model for the region, our research risks being dismissed.
The following stories of strawberry, one of the new crops, allow us to immerse ourselves in a field where lived experiences, taste, and a host of other imaginations and aspirations are located. Here, the meaning of development is not mapped on a dominant framework that the North East Council offers, but exists in the midst of an ongoing transformation. It is our tasks as researchers to connect the meaning of these changes and analyse how initiatives and visions are imprinted on the minds and thoughts. For some, the alternative to get out of the drudgery of ‘sitting at home’ during the pandemic meant trying new crops like strawberry. For others, it was an experiment and an adventure that allowed them to learn something new and exciting. But then, who are the people on the ground growing and feeding us strawberry?
Country roads, take me home,
to the place I belong…
Singing and playing John Denver’s popular country song on his guitar, Mrinal Rabha kept recording videos from his strawberry farm in Assam during the pandemic in 2020. His desire to become a strawberry farmer (while keeping his music career on track) was driven by his spirit to experiment to try out something new. The pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 took young Mrinal back to his ancestral land in Goalpara district of Assam. When he thought about ways to doing something “useful” with the vast track of land in his village, he remembered conversations with his friends about strawberry as a lucrative crops. Almost with zero idea about farming or growing strawberry, he started by looking up workshops and training videos on YouTube. “I did not know anything,” he told us when we visited his strawberry farm in Goalpara. Gradually, he started the strawberry garden, and began talking to the people in the village. Then, he imparted training on techniques of cultivating the new crop. For Mrinal, it was also first attempt at farming anything at all. He believed that involving the villagers in his new agricultural pursuits was crucial as they shared intimate ties with nature and held rich knowledge about the land and the soil. As a full-time music teacher at a reputed private school in Guwahati, Mrinal spent the next two years 2020/2021 imparting online music lessons to his students from his car enroute to Goalpara or under the shed of his strawberry farm.
When the lockdown was lifted towards the end of 2021, he returned to his strawberry farm every weekend. He said, “I would miss the plants. And especially during the fruiting season, I was unable to sleep in Guwahati. I would think of the strawberries. It was like an outstation working parent eager to meet the children.” Mrinal began to feel that his strawberries were like his children. He wanted to be there and hold them when they were ripe. After he encountered strawberries, Mrinal became a caring farmer—someone who was concerned about the plants—a trait that was not there before. As he has become well-versed with its seasons, excited about the saplings, he has also developed new concerns. He said that he thinks about questions such as, “how are they (the strawberries) growing? Is the red colour good enough? Bright enough? Are the plants free of disease?”
In February 2022, when we visited Mrinal’s orchard located some 140 km from Guwahati, there were 50,000 plants. As we strolled along the garden asking Mrinal about the plants, he was talking to us but also keeping a loving and watchful eye on the plants. He would bend down, touch the strawberry plants and remove weeds and touch the fruits and examine them. Aware that we were watching him, he smiled and said, “Strawberries need a lot of care and attention.” His relationship with the village and his perception of land transformed. As a professional singer and a music teacher living in Guwahati he was never fascinated or drawn to the rural countryside. In relation to land and farming, earlier he had never planted any plants or shown any desire to be associated with farming. Growing and caring for the strawberries felt like finding a reason to live with a purpose and to be connected with land. A physical and material entity whose potential was immense and could configure and transform the lives of the villagers and the younger generation.
In the last two years, the strawberry farm has also become a popular site for families and children from the village to drop by. When we were at the farm, a small boy, around 5 years old, came by with his father. Mrinal told us that he was the youngest customer. After tasting strawberry last year, the small boy always begged his father to take him to the strawberry farm to get some more.
Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra is known as the strawberry basket of India. The experience of plucking strawberries from farms have become a way of attracting tourists from the city who wish to escape the urban life during weekends. Besides Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, and the Northeastern states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram are always featured as the highest producers of strawberry in India. During our initial fieldwork on new crops, we learnt from strawberry farmers like Mrinal that the market demand for strawberries across Northeast India is extremely high even though many farmers are yet to adopt it. There are implications and risks in adopting crops like strawberry that require close attention and care. The risks of pests and fungus are high. The crop requires extreme care while packaging and transporting. Therefore, popularity and acceptability of new crops does not mean farmers are ready to eager to start growing it immediately.
Agricultural scientists like Himadri Shekhar Datta are encouraging farmers on the ground to consider strawberry. Datta teaches in the Department of Horticulture at the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) in Jorhat. He is passionate about strawberry and is an advocate for this new crop. He believes that it can be an attractive option for farmers if one is able to devote time. He also explains how strawberry is a short duration crop. Datta is writing his doctoral thesis on strawberry and carried out his experiment at Pankaj Chetry’s land in Dhankhuloi, Jorhat. Pankaj who is a dairy farmer also adopted strawberry after Dutta came to his land and experimented with the fruit. It was a comprehensive project to trace the beginning of a place. From the process of germinating the plant, planting strawberry seedlings, and finally finding a market for it. In Assam, October-November are considered as the best planting season. Within fifty days flowering starts and the plants bear fruits within the next two months. One plant can bear up to one kilogram of strawberries in a season. The best season to harvest strawberry remains between January and April, or until the rains begin and the temperature soars.
Explaining his decision to carry out his strawberry experiment on Chetry’s farm rather than opting for an institutional orchard at the Assam Agricultural University, Datta said,
If the farmer is involved in the process, he will understand the technology and its dynamics. It will be scientific and he will be able to observe the plant as it grows and shall know when to check for any damage or disease. I did not use any kind of chemical fertilizer but vermicompost. Since Pankaj Chetry is a dairy farmer, cow dung was available. I did the cultivation in such a way that it covered from production to marketing, including labelling and packaging. I focused both on cultivation and marketing. I explored the market in around 2019 initially, and later when people got to know that Pankaj was growing strawberry, they called him and placed orders. So, he is selling his strawberry at his dairy outlet near Jorhat and even sends it to the town. Even though my experiments are over at his farm, Pankaj continues to grow strawberry.
Strawberry, according to Dutta, has a potential more than being an attractive crop alone. Even though the initial investment in terms of seedlings, mulching paper, raised beds or drip irrigation is high compared to other crops, returns are quick and profitable. There is also a gender dimension here. Many farmers believe that their family members—males and females—can be involved in the strawberry cultivation. Women are mostly involved in weeding, spraying manure, and plucking and packaging the strawberry. Many women farmers are also starting their own strawberry farms on their lands.
Although we refer to strawberry as a new crop, it was present in the market since the 1990s. Not as widely visible as they are today, strawberry was considered as an exotic fruit around twenty years ago. Although one would seldom come across a strawberry farmer like Mrinal Rabha around 2 decades ago, it was not unusual for travellers from Assam holidaying in Shillong to bring back a few boxes of the fruit. Thus, as the craze for this new fruit increased, big cities like Guwahati in Assam became a natural market for strawberry. Small strawberry farmers like Mrinal Rabha are unable to meet the demand for this fruit. In order to meet the demands of consumers, big shops across Guwahati procure strawberries and other new fruits from the neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh as well.
Besides the shops in Guwahati and other towns within the state, where do strawberry from Assam go? As we asked about the journey of the fruits out of the farm, Mrinal said that his fruits have made their way to the local markets at Goalpara, Guwahati, Barpeta, Silchar, Golaghat and Sivasagar in Assam. And then they also travelled interstate. The Goalpara strawberry reached Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh and Dimapur in Nagaland. This is precisely the point we made at the beginning of our essay. Quite apart from the big possibilities and visions for the region, the everyday lives of small things or stories—new fruits and small farms—are important accounts as well. Writing about large plantations and cash crops, which are extremely important and relevant, does not mean we disregard the small initiatives of the ground. Tracing the movements and journeys of new crops like strawberry from small farms and villages allow us to dwell and reflect on experiments and how expressions and experiences of tasting new fruits leave imprints to adopt alternative visions and incorporate new food into our system.
In the last decade of more, initiatives of the ground to save and preserve heritage seeds and crops such as millet and buckwheat across the eastern Himalayan societies have become highly visible. Local media and cultural associations, including food activists, have joined various seed banks. This is a good initiative. These initiatives correspond with a larger story of loss of culture, especially agricultural practices that are deeply intertwined with indigenous values and kinship ties. Seeds, we are told, are tied to sacred and social rituals during moments of deaths and marriages to signify human bonds and separations. Yet, the physical transformation on the ground where community interdependence is replaced with market logic, and social identities suffer as communities become possessed with religious or ethnic markers, the notion of saving heritage seeds—the quest to save pure seeds as part of culture—is not without risks. At best, heritage seed saving initiatives are moral projects where identity, and community care and life are connected with seeds. The project of human survival during a time of climate change can neither be grounded on a melody of preservation or a language of safeguarding. Tuning our ears and concentrating on the accounts of new crops and tastes means trying to iterate the larger reasons and visions on the ground. Neither Mrinal Rabha nor his fellow strawberry farmers across the region are detached from their cultural and traditional ties. Instead, farming has brought them closer to land. But there is also something else that matters for them. Conversations about food security, climate adaptability, and livelihood options matter. Yet, on the ground, everything intersects and moves together. Therefore, when it comes down to the stories about Mrinal Rabha’s strawberry in Dimapur, the biggest city in Nagaland, the little new red fruit is the new kid in taste town. There is no dispute that Dimapur has some of the best cafes and food joints in the region. Along with the Korean cafes, Naga coffee, and the distinctive Naga food joints, the gelato bar that procures Mrinal Rabha’s strawberries stands out. As researchers following new crops in the eastern Himalayan region, we are unable to separate accounts of livelihood and experiments with taste.
Even though there is no history of Naga ancestors eating Italian gelato, there is always a beginning. This is the important point we make. The variety of gelato at a café called “La Gelateria: Italian Home Made Ice-Cream” in Dimapur exceptional. The strawberry arrives by bus, well packed and the ice cream maker in Dimapur turns them into strawberry gelato. It is not possible to erase the thrill and excitement of tasting new food that tastes amazing. Instead of erasing such experiences, be it pleasure or delight, it is important to regard these moments to explore new epistemic frameworks instead of dwelling on existing dominant knowledge frameworks. Following small packets of strawberry from Goalpara in Assam to Dimapur in Nagaland highlights the challenges of existing obstacles in the supply chain network in the region, and the manners in which these small goods travel and arrive at their destination. Perhaps the gelato café is Dimapur is the new emblem of regional aspiration beating all odds to emerge as a winner in a region crippled by the absence of infrastructure for its farmers and entrepreneurs.
As our new crop research continues and we follow the strawberry across the eastern Himalayan region, we are aware of the difficulties on the ground. Two challenges exist for strawberry cultivation in the region. First, we need laboratories for tissue culture in Northeast India so that farmers do not have to buy seedlings from outside the region. For instance, strawberry farmer Mrinal Rabha from Goalpara travelled all the way to Himachal Pradesh to buy the first batch of strawberry seedlings. He continues to procure the seedlings from there through cargo flights. Pankaj Chetry from Jorhat also orders the strawberry seedlings from Pune. Secondly, there is an absence of network for small farmers who are experimenting and adopting new crops. While there is a need for networking and training of strawberry growers in the region, an emphasis on food preservation and processing is a key component. Exciting experiments on the ground such as home-made strawberry juice in Jorhat and ice-creams are exciting developments, questions about large scale farms for new crops like strawberry remains open. The excitement for strawberry and other emerging crops in the region is a refreshing one as they enable us to trace the new developments of the ground. Returning to our point we made earlier, we should care about new ‘small’ stories because they help us to define the larger frameworks and logic upon which these developments are taking place.
This essay is part of an ongoing research on food sovereignty in the eastern Himalayan region funded by the Swedish Research Council. We thank our team members for support and helping us to think about new crops. We also acknowledge our interlocuters and community in Assam and Nagaland who shared their time, knowledge, and insights with us.