Indian poets, from Kalidas to Amir Khusrau, have waxed eloquent about the mango tree, the producer of the fruit of the gods and the abode of the melodious cuckoo, and the cool shade its extended foliage offers to the weary traveller. Such soft sentiments do not move food scientists fighting against time to ensure that our land produces more than enough for our teeming millions. As the scientists win, the mango tree that moved poets may soon become history, which can be a distressing thought only if you are sitting in the invigorating shade of one.

The problem with the old mango tree is that it doesn't produce enough fruit to ensure a decent livelihood to the farmers who look after them. And because the fruit produced by the old mango tree, especially from the higher branches, is matured on the ground after it has dropped on it, the rate of wastage is very high. A substantial number of mangoes, in fact, get disfigured when they drop on the ground.

To veer around this problem, scientists working with the Jalgaon-based Jain Irrigation Systems, the world’s biggest mango pulp-maker, operating out of a plantation at Urumulpet in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district, invested 20 years to develop a system of cropping known as Ultra High Density Plantation, which has led to mango yields go up by up to four times using drip irrigation and controlling fertiliser and pesticide use.

To popularise this system among mango farmers, and potentially change their economic profile, Jain Irrigation teamed up with its old partner, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages (a subsidiary of Coca-Cola India), which needs the mangoes for its popular Maaza brand, and launched Project Unnati in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, a prosperous district in the Rayalseema region famous for being the home of Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati-Tirumala. Scientists have stunted the mango tree and increased the average yield per acre by four times for farmers living in the shadow of Tirumala in Chittoor.

Covering about 350-plus marginal farmers growing the pulpy Totapuri mangoes and owning acres (and aiming at touching 25,000 across the South), Project Unnati could well become a case study for a sustainable way to achieve the national target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of doubling the average income of farmers by 2020. It also addresses another challenge dragging down our horticulture sector — because of the low penetration of fruit processing facilities, and in the absence of a dependable cold chain, farmers are sometimes under pressure to sell their stock at depressed prices. A bountiful production, in fact, can become a curse for farmers.

How does Ultra High Density Plantation (UHDP) work? First, none of the trees grows beyond 6.5 feet, which means each fruit can be picked personally by the fanner’s family. Next, because of a reduction in the distance between the rows (4m) and from plant to plant (2m), the number of mango trees that can be grown in an acre goes up dramatically from 40-50 to 500, which naturally pushes up production from 2.5 tonnes to 9-10 tonnes an acre. It makes an immediate impact on the income of the farmer’s family, which goes up, if measured according to the government-mandated minimum support price of? 13 a kilo being offered in Chittoor, from Rs.32,500 per crop to Rs.1,30,000. That’s not bad, considering that the initial investment required in Rs.60,000 per acre, a part of it subsidised by Project Unnati, and the trees are harvest ready by the third year.

And because the system is driven by drip irrigation (Jain Irrigation, incidentally, is the No. 2 manufacturer of drip irrigation systems in the world), the water use per tree is limited to 30-35 litres per month in the peak growing season of April-May. The fertiliser-pesticide use, too, gets economised, for the same drip system is used to control the delivery of these chemicals per tree. As an agronomist explained, “If you just control the use of urea, the leaves will be less succulent and stop attracting pests, helping you cut down on pesticides.”

India's agriculture story lags behind badly in yields per hectare. Any innovation that increases the yields will make a difference to the lives of the farmers. The ground-breaking farmers of Chittoor can set an example for the rest of the country.

The writer is a noted food critic