India's potato express

In a land where people routinely cling to the sides and roofs of crowded trains to get anywhere, meet some of the most pampered new passengers on India's railways: fruits and vegetables.

Last week, a special express train left the northern Indian town of Agra and travelled 30 hours non-stop across 1,000 kilometers and four states to arrive at the Turbhe railway yard near the Vashi wholesale market in Mumbai.

On board were 1,530 tons of potatoes snugly cushioned in 90 ventilated containers.

For India's produce farmers, the June 13 inaugural run of the “Farmferry” train may herald a new era.

Today, potatoes. Tomorrow, mangoes, pomegranates and tomatoes.

The goal ultimately is to link farmers and markets across India so produce no longer gets squashed and spoilt during travel on roads and on regular goods trains, a serious problem in this vast tropical country.

Estimates given to Parliament are that 500 billion rupees (US$8.76 billion) of produce is lost every year after harvest.

“Getting produce quickly to market and in good condition is of vital importance to farmers, as transporting it in trucks or trains not designed to handle perishable products leads to a lot of spoilage,” said Bijay Kumar, managing director of the National Horticultural Mission (NHM), part of India's agricultural ministry.

Agra farmers, for example, use trucks to transport produce to Vashi on a journey that takes three to five days.

In that time, between 15 percent and 25 percent of the potatoes rot on the road. In contrast, no spoilage was reported when the Farmferry potatoes were unloaded at Vashi.

Even better, rail freight costs – at 1,200 rupees a ton – were lower than the 2,000 rupees a ton it costs by road. And traders at Vashi offered 10 percent more money for the fresher potatoes.

The Farmferry service is run by the NHM together with the state-owned Container Corporation of India (Concor).

Each Farmferry container – 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 9.5 feet high – is lined with polyurethane foam coated with food-grade cladding so the perishable cargo does not get bruised during transport.

To keep fruits and vegetables fresh, there are vents to let air in but keep rain out. The 90 containers that constitute the Farmferry train cost 180 million rupees.

Kumar and his colleagues, who were inspired by the air-conditioned trains used to transport produce in the United States and Europe, had to overcome many hurdles to organize Farmferry's first commercial trip from Agra to Mumbai.

Existing middlemen were none too pleased to be cut out and farmers themselves were skeptical.

To persuade farmers, the NHM issued public notices inviting them to use the train.

Then the NHM flew two farmers to Mumbai to meet the Farmferry so they could personally check the condition of the potatoes on arrival.

“Of course, the farmers were convinced!” said Kumar.

Eventually, the idea is for each train to reach markets early in the morning, in time for the day's auctions. The NHM plans to later introduce refrigerated wagons for produce such as apples, oranges, mangoes, grapes, pomegranates, tomatoes and carrots.

It could be a good business opportunity for the 15 private companies licensed to run container trains in India, said industrialist-farmer Chandrashekhar Padgilwar.

Nobody had done it before because there was no sturdy data on where surplus farm produce was available and where there was significant demand. With the Farmferry, the NHM expects to generate some sketchy data which could be used by private sector operators.

“We expect freight rates will be rationalized when they establish the origin and destination fares between various supply and demand points,” said Padgilwar. (mtq)

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