In 2000, after his schooling in Chandigarh and graduation in mass communication at Panjab University, Harkirat Singh Ahluwalia returned to Hoshiarpur’s Chhauni village. Just 26 then, he was intent on making a go of the sprawling kinnow orchards his grandfather, Harbans Singh, established in the 1960s. Incomes from the traditional wheat-paddy farming were beginning to dip, and the returns from citrus cultivation were also becoming unviable. Besides the rising costs of fertilisers, fuel and other farm inputs, some of this, Harkirat says, was also because of the archaic technologies in use at most kinnow orchards. “There was neither any attempt by successive state governments nor individual growers to diversify and add value to the horticultural produce,” he says.
Working with his father and brother, Harkirat gradually installed drip-irrigation on his family orchards, besides mechanising all other processes, from spraying pesticides to adding fertilisers. “The only thing we now do manually is plucking the ripened fruit,” he says. After 2002, when the government imported a range of citrus rootstock from Florida, Harkirat’s family happily planted the new varieties. The orchards today boast of a diverse array of citrus fruits not grown anywhere else in north India-honey tangerines, daisy tangerines, grapefruit and redblood Malta.
To further supplement the income from horticulture and agro-forestry, Harkirat opened Punjab’s first rural homestay in 2008, amid one of his kinnow orchards in Chhauni. “The idea was to extract more from the land without having to head to a city,” he says. Named Citrus County, Harkirat’s venture consists of air-conditioned tents, where visitors are given a first-hand feel of the ‘good life’ Punjab has been traditionally known for-delicious home-cooked food, nightly bonfires and plenty of spirits.
Citrus County has opened itself to agro-tourism in a big way, hosting farmers from the United Kingdom, US, Switzerland and Australia, all coming over to see how things are done on farms and orchards in Punjab. “Overseas visitors are invariably delighted with our traditional ways,” says Harkirat . He has even been getting older guests, particularly Britons and Aussies, who fly in to renew their marital vows at colourful Sikh ceremonies.
Harkirat is currently helping a cultivator set up a Citrus County franchise at Chamkaur Sahib in Rupnagar district. Unlike many affluent farmers who have moved to cities, only occasionally returning to their villages to supervise farming, Harkirat has chosen to live in his village. And it is evidently working for him.