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Purple revolution: India’s farmers turn to lavender to beat drought

Kalpana Sunder
·3-min read

It’s late June and the field is glowing with fragrant purple as the women in their flowing shalwar kameez arrive with scythes to harvest the lavender. In the 30-odd villages on the hilly slopes of Jammu’s Doda district, more than 200 farmers have shifted from maize to lavender production, starting a “purple revolution” in the region.

The village of Lehrote had a moment of agricultural fame this year when a 43-year-old farmer, Bharat Bhushan, won a prestigious award for innovative farming from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, one of several institutions across the country looking to find ways of coping with the climate crisis and its devastating impact on farming. Lavender, a drought-resistant crop, can be grown on poor soil and likes lots of sun but needs little water.

“I started lavender farming in 2010, hesitantly, as an experiment due to the encouragement from the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine [IIIM] Jammu,” says Bhushan. “It is easy to grow, and does not require much irrigation. I used just cow dung as manure.” In two years he was earning four times more than he had done growing maize.

“Seeing my success, many followed suit and now more than 500 farmers in this area who are part of self-help groups are engaged in this occupation. I have also started two nurseries for propagating lavender saplings. The village has become a lavender producing and distillation hub,” says Bhushan, who has also installed machinery to extract oil from lavender flowers.

“The best part about growing lavender is that many women in villages who are not allowed to work away from home have been encouraged to cultivate lavender around their homes because it is profitable, and this has made them self-reliant,” he says.

Women who are not allowed to work away from their villages can cultivate lavender around their home

Bharat Bhushan, farmer

“The domestic demand for lavender oil is high, and we sell distilled oil directly to industrial customers in cities in India, like Mumbai and Delhi. We also sell dried lavender for potpourri, sachets and flower arrangements, and hydrosol, which is formed after distillation from the flowers, used to make soaps and room fresheners.”

Bhushan was inspired by a video conference with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which in 2016 launched the Aroma Mission, encouraging farmers whose livelihoods were affected by the climate emergency to grow crops such as lavender, rosemary and lemongrass, and medicinal plants such as ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or Withania somnifera. It provides cuttings, helps in setting up distillation units for clusters of 50 farmers, tests oil quality and helps find buyers.

“Lavender is a crop native to Europe, but was introduced in the temperate regions of this state by the CSIR Aroma Mission in the districts of Doda, Kishtwar and Rajouri,” says Sumeet Gairola, senior scientist at the institute. “In 2017, five labs across India were set up with an objective of helping farmers grow 20 medicinal and aromatic crops, across 6,000 hectares [15,000 acres] all over India.”

Related: How India’s battle with climate change could determine all of our fates

Lavender’s easy-to-grow properties makes it popular with farmers, he says. “The income generated from lavender farming is much better than growing crops like maize. One hectare of land can generate as much as 30 to 45 litres of lavender oil, which is in high demand as an essential aromatic oil.”

Many farmers in Kashmir are starting to cultivate the crop, often growing it alongside apple orchards. Recently, CSIR announced the expansion of the Aroma Mission, with the launch attended by farmers from other northern states such as Uttarakhand, Nagaland and Assam, so the purple blooms could soon become a common sight across India.