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Sweet harvest

Women and watermelons are at the heart of a farming collective in Ladakh that has cultivated tasty success

The watermelons of Takmachik village in Ladakh’s Sham Valley region have developed quite a reputation. “They are so sweet that people think we have added sugar to them,” says Tashi Dolma, a Takmachik resident who grows the fruit. “But our watermelons are grown entirely organically, which is what gives them a different taste. There’s no question of adding sugar.”

The watermelon crop here is also bountiful, mainly because it is cultivated by many. Ms Dolma is part of a group of 10 women who have been growing watermelons as part of a group farming initiative introduced in the area in 2016 by Himmotthan Society, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts.

Five self-help groups, comprising about 35 women, are involved in the watermelon cultivation in Takmachik. Each of these groups selects a fallow plot of land, leases it from the owner for 5,000-6,000, and starts growing watermelons. It’s a long-duration fruit — it takes from April to October to mature — and the women divide the farming tasks.

They plant the seedlings and take turns to water the crop, with two women attending to it every other day. Come harvest time and they get together to manage a bunch of tasks before taking the watermelons to the market to sell.

It’s not unusual, in end-October, to see groups of women walking downhill with large plastic baskets and crates loaded with watermelons strapped to their backs. It’s a difficult haul since some pieces may weigh up to 12kg. Ms Dolma laughs when asked how she copes with the weight. “It’s worth it,” she says. 

Financial responsibilities are shared by the group: the cost of leasing the land and purchasing seedlings and the plastic mulching sheets that nourish the crop. The Trusts, through Himmotthan, have made these available at subsidised rates and facilitated a package of practices for the cultivators.

Proceeds from the sale of the watermelons are divided equally among members of the group. In recent years, when there has been a bumper crop — this is becoming common with improved farming techniques — Ms Dolma’s group has managed to get around 65,000 for one harvest. About half of this is split equally and the remaining is set aside for future expenses, including ‘exposure visits’ to learn better farming techniques and such.

Fruitful avenues

Benefits and risks

There are those who have done better still. A 12-woman group led by Phurbu Dolma, also from Takmachik, earned 85,000 from a recent harvest, selling the fruit at 50 a kilo. The rewards are attractive, but there are benefits as well as risks in watermelon farming.

Agriculture in cold, arid and water-scarce Ladakh, with its rocky soil, can be tricky. Families here either cultivate the hardy barley or buckwheat, depend on horticulture and the growing of apricots, or, in the case of a lucky few, own and manage orchards. High-value vegetables, relatively easy to grow in the plains, don’t take root here.

“There is a shortage of water for irrigation because of climate change and the depletion of natural glaciers,” says Samten Choephel, an area manager with Himmotthan. “Drawing water from melting sources is difficult which is why growing most crops here is tough.”

The primary income of the majority of families is migratory work or tourism-related activities. “It’s quite common to find large tracts of land left fallow for years in Ladakh,” Mr Choephel adds. “With more people migrating for work, landowners can no longer find labour to plough and cultivate their plots. Often, they have no choice but to leave them unattended.”

Sometimes the landowners themselves move out, especially if they are in government jobs, so they are happy to lease out the land rather than leave it unused. Given the context, watermelon farming is a fine choice. Although it takes many months to grow, the fruit requires little water, particularly when plastic mulching sheets are used.

“In a dry season, if we need some extra water, we set up a portable storage unit on the side of the field,” says Phurbu Dolma. The long duration also means that the women farmers can continue to tend to their family holdings and orchards, even as the collective cultivation of watermelon continues.

A group of watermelon cultivators with the fruit of their labour

Replication time

The success of this group farming initiative has led the Trusts, through Himmotthan, to replicate this model in other parts of Ladakh. Women-led self-help groups from three villages in Sham Valley are now growing watermelons.

“It is a new concept,” says Konchok Dorjai, a cluster facilitator with Himmotthan. “We studied this group farming idea in 2016, so we have some experience. Once we saw some success in terms of the yields in Takmachik, and people’s acceptance and skill, we brought other villages into the project.”

The only thing preventing these women from growing at commercial scale is limited access to markets. “With more villages cultivating watermelons, we are hard pressed to find new markets,” says Phurbu Dolma. “Earlier we used to bundle our produce into a van and take it to Khaltse market, 18km away, and we usually managed to sell everything. Now there are so many more watermelon farmers that selling our produce is becoming harder.”

That said, Phurbu Dolma, Tashi Dolma and their co-cultivators can’t think of doing anything else. Beyond the money pulled in, there’s the camaraderie that group farming brings. Harvest time is a celebration, with the women converging on fields and spending the day cutting, sorting and weighing the fruit.

“They feel empowered having money that’s their own, even though it isn’t much,” says Mr Dorjai. “It makes them feel proud.”