It’s a new crop of farmers that’s seen making an entry into AP’s agro industry now. Far removed from the traditional sickle-carrying uneducated bunch, these laptop-totting modern agriculturalists are mostly suave techies with a plush job in the hi-tech hub of Hyderabad. And what they seem to be putting their money on to further `cultivate’ their wealth is not just another seasonal vegetable or fruit, but the much profitable sandalwood.

Rough estimates suggest that well over 1,000 acres of land spread across areas such as Alair, Vikarabad and Zaheerabad, all located within 100 km from the city, have been brought under this new-age plantation activity that until a few years ago was restricted to dedicated zones within Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The low cost of land in these pockets – industry experts claim that the prices are as low as Rs 20 lakh per acre – coupled with a recession-hit real estate market and the surge in interest among young professionals to go back to the fields’, has given the lucrative business that extra boost.

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So much so that M M Rao, after spending a good 14 years in the BPO sector, is now mulling giving up his present career and don the role of a full-time farmer. “I have bought half acre in Alair for this purpose with an initial investment of Rs 4 lakh. The value of this property has already shot up to Rs 6 lakh and post cultivation, it is only expected to rise further,” Rao said.

“Also, considering I am growing vegetables and mangoes here (sandalwood needs `host’ plants) in the intervening period, I expect to earn anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 annually from the sale of the fruit till the sandalwood plants are ready for yield,” he added.

On an average, it takes around 15-20 years for a sandalwood tree to be rich in its oil content. Techie-farmers hope to reap rich harvest. Apart from himself, the techie has also managed to persuade some of his friends to take to this ‘new profession’ as he is highly optimistic of impressive returns in the future.

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To cash in on this swelling enthusiasm for sandalwood among novice farmers, corporate groups from the city have come up with special profit-sharing ‘packages’ to encourage more and more people to take to agriculture, especially organic farming.

“We work on a 50-50 revenue sharing model wherein the land owner gives us the property and we take care of everything – right from setting up infrastructure to cultivation to harvest. This spares the owner the trouble of not just the initial plantation but also securing the plot till the trees grow,” said K Srinivas Rao, director, Village Organics Pvt Ltd, the company that presently has over 500 acres of land (for sandalwood farming) under its belt. It also has on board specialized wood and horticulture scientists to assist with the project.

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“Contrary to popular conception, the Rayalaseema-Telangana region is well suited for this cultivation as they are not waterlogged areas,” Rao, who is also the president of the Sandalwood Growers Association of India, said.

Among the many hi-tech Hyderabadis who have signed up with his firm is Sheik Rasheed Basha, an IT professional, working with the railways at present. “I was looking at an investment option and this sounded interesting. The real estate market is anyway down so I thought of putting my money here,” Basha said. Only two months ago, he bought 1,200 sq yards (approx) in Vikarabad. “I have invested about Rs 3.5 lakh, which I am sure, will grow by at least three times soon,” he added.

But while this fresh group of farmers is sure of good returns, city environmentalists do sound a word of caution. They fear that such longterm business models might fizzle out before the buyers make any money. #KhabarLive