I leave home before sunrise with my friend Ravi Sweemar, a passionate vegetable farmer from a neighbouring village of Dharampura. It is drizzling as we set out to visit Mahesh Sharda’s khajur (date) plantation in 7 NDR Haripura Chak (tehsil and district Hanumangarh). A resilient farmer, Mahesh has a never-say-die attitude. After twenty years of grappling with jojoba which was destroyed by a termite attack, he first shifted to pomegranate which was attacked by bacterial fungus and later amla that did not survive the frequent frost attacks. In between, he even tried growing aloe vera, which has more than four hundred varieties, but planted the wrong variety and was forced to give up. Finally, he appears to have hit the jackpot with dates.

Dates are mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran and are generally associated with the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, even though they are known to have beem planted in the Indus Valley. Rahul Gala from Bhuj in Gujarat, a famous date farmer, learnt the technique in Israel and advised Mahesh to grow dates. These better techniques have captured the imagination of the farmers.

Indians have become accustomed, over thousands of years, to relishing dried sweet dates from the Middle East. Mahesh is growing the ‘Barhi’ variety that looks like a ber (Indian jujube) and turns goldenyellowish when ripe (see photo above). The word is derived from the Arabic barh, meaning a ‘hot wind’. ‘Barhi’ is spherical and light amber in colour, fit for table purposes. ‘Barhi’ or ‘Barhee’ or ‘Khujuria’, can be eaten in the doka (early) stage of development (see photo on page 66), while most other varieties have too much tannin at that stage. ‘Barhi’ could make good wine too.

It is highly probable that most Indians have never eaten raw dates. Due to their very short shelf life and primitive transportation practices, in previous times dates could never be transported in bulk. Indians are more accustomed to the ‘Halawy’ or ‘Medhjool’ varieties. Upon harvest in the doka stage, ‘Medhjool’ dates are soaked in boiling water for four minutes. After being removed from the water, they are initially dried in the shade for thirty minutes and subsequently dried again for twenty days. Only then are they ready to eat. Dates have high therapeutic value and enough nutritional value to make a horse run fast and long

When we reach the farm, the drizzle stops and the wind picks up speed as if to allow us the time to observe and enjoy the plantation. The air is charged with negative ions, all the plants, whether wild or cultivated, are burdened with small water droplets.

Mahesh explains that government intervention and proper incentives can speed up diversification and initiate a change in the mindset. The Rajasthan government subsidized date saplings, selling a Rs. 3,500 sapling for Rs. 350. Good planting material and care have surprisingly ensured zero plant mortality on the farm. Normally, a few plants are expected to die for various reasons within the first few years of transplanting

In collaboration with Israel, Rajasthan has also invested in research into olive plantations. A forward-looking government, sharing crop insurance premium, has allowed crop insurance to cover fifty per cent of the state’s cropped area. Sometimes farmers can only appreciate the quality of the governance in their home state when they have had the opportunity to study the policy failures of other states.

Mahesh transplanted saplings on his land in August 2010, at intervals of 25×22 feet. These trees started to bear fruit in three years, the quality improving every year. Date palms bear male and female flowers on separate trees; the male-female ratio of trees being thirty female trees to one male tree. This is Mahesh’s fifth year and the yield per tree is 40 kg, which is expected to rise to an annual 200 kg from the tenth year onwards. The tree will hopefully have a life of over fifty years.

The sweet fruit lures wild predators. Dates need to be protected from foxes, ants, neelgai (blue bull), parrots and dogs to name a few. In the fifth year, the fruit is close to the ground and is easy prey for animals. As the tree grows to about twenty feet the fruit is safer but the cost of harvest increases substantially, although this is compensated for by the increased yield.

Imagine living amidst a twenty foot high dates plantation on top of a high sand dune. That is what dreams are made of. I can smell the land, hear the bees hum and the birds chirp. The sense of being at one with nature under a clouded sky with a cool soothing breeze blowing, eating raw dates plucked from a tree, is quite divine. I also venture to forecast a future of desert or farm tourism, right here, in the middle of nowhere.

Yet life for Mahesh is not easy. Water (slightly saline) involves laying a pipeline from a tube well over a mile away. Each tree requires 150 litres of water per day in peak summer. Contrary to popular belief, dates do not require less water. The electricity supply has improved and is available for six hours a day, which is enough to water the plantation deploying drip irrigation.

Farming in Rajasthan is better in situations, where a 60 per cent subsidy on fertilizers is provided to dates farmers for a limited period of time. Mahesh uses NPK, boron and calcium nitrate from February to June. The targeted subsidy to create the incentive for a new crop has proved to be a very good strategy. Other farmers will surely learn from the success stories and adopt the crop. Thus far, Mahesh has not had to use pesticides, but he may have to at a later date.

Pollination is done by hand. One collects pollen in a box and sprinkles it with a dry brush, (as if sprinkling salt) on the female flower plants. A bunch of flowers has to be pollinated at least thrice within a span of fifteen to twenty days. It takes one person a month to pollinate 10 bighas of trees. In May the fruit tends to be very small and therefore some of it needs to be thinned out manually, through brushing, in order to get produce that is of a better size and quality. The tree yields fruit once a year in August. After the harvest the new shoots are trimmed in September

I estimate that cost of upkeep of each tree is approximately Rs.1,000. The cost of harvesting and grading the fruit is Rs.7 per kg. Additionally, the packaging requires two boxes. Initially, the fruit is packed in small plastic boxes with a capacity of 500 grams that cost `4 each. These boxes are then put in a carton which holds 20 kg and costs Rs.40. To my mind the selling price should stabilize at Rs.50 per kg over time. Marketing is a challenge. A single buyer in the wholesale market seems to be unable to sell more than a quintal each time in the market. The supply is limited and the market is just waking to a delightful new crop : the possibilities are as expansive as is Mahesh’s spirit.

It is time to return to my own farm but my heart yearns to linger on. Like all idyllic breaks this too must end and I have to leave. There is work to do.