Betting the Farm

The exotic vegetables of Bodh Gaya

31 October, 2022

On a chilly morning in December 2019, Suryakant Narayan, a farmer in Bodh Gaya, woke up at 5 am and went to his field to harvest some exotic crops: bok choy, ruby ball and napa cabbage, lemon grass, celery, strawberry, lettuce, bell peppers, baby corn, water spinach, thyme and basil. He would deliver part of his produce at the local mandi, where retailers and purchase managers of nearby hotels come to procure fresh vegetables. Due to an abundance of supply, however, he did not get the desired price for his crops.

The farmers of Bodh Gaya take huge risks in planting nontraditional crops in the winter months, instead of wheat, with the hope of high demand from East Asian pilgrims. They often deliver the produce to restaurants in the area, many of which are owned or operated by foreign nationals. Some foreign pilgrims and tourists stay longer, rent a place, and cook for themselves—buying these exotic vegetables at mandis. Sometimes, they procure them directly from the farmers’ fields, bargaining in their broken Hindi, acquired over their long seasonal stays.

Seeds of these vegetables were first introduced and distributed to the local farmers by monks from nearby monasteries. Narayan began farming them some fifteen years back, when they were relatively still quite alien. He told me that, in the early days, a friend once took some broccoli from him and asked his grandmother to prepare it for lunch. As she was chopping it, some neighbours dropped in. They told her it was rotten cauliflower, green because it had caught fungus. She fed the broccoli to her cow.

Nevertheless, Narayan did not have trouble finding customers at the mandi. He sold broccoli for around twenty rupees a piece—a high price at the time, when a piece of cauliflower fetched him less than five rupees. “When the farmers started getting good amounts for these crops, the demand for the seeds increased,” Mahendra Prasad, a local seed seller, told me. “We procured them from Indira Market in Delhi, and started selling them in the market. That’s how these products started growing in Bodh Gaya.”