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SATARA, India (Reuters Life!) - A decade ago, Rahul Pawar made an unusual and risky choice -- to grow flowers in the center of India's biggest sugar-producing state.
Now he's reaping the rewards of his 1.1 million rupee ($24,409) investment as increasingly affluent Indians want his bright blooms for their weddings and festivals.
"Every year we are seeing a rise in demand. People are using more and more flowers at functions like weddings," Pawar said.
"They are ready to pay for flowers like gerbera and gladioli, which are new to them," he added, holding a fluorescent bird of paradise bloom in his weather-beaten hands.
Pawar grows orange and red gerberas under polythene in climate-controlled conditions to shield them from Maharashtra's scorching summer, when temperatures can top 48 C.
The hardier birds of paradise plants flourish in the field and take three years to reach production of 30 flowers each. They will flash their orange and purple crests for 20 years.
The central belt of Maharashtra is prime sugar cane country, producing over nine million tonnes of the sweetener -- or about 40 percent of India's total output.
The government guarantees minimum prices for farmers, currently at 139.12 rupees per 100 kilogrammes, for sugar cane. Sugar is an important source of food energy for a country where over 42 percent of the 1.2 billion population are below the poverty line.
But farmers like Pawar are experimenting with crops such as flowers, a luxury item where more money can often be made.
"Flowers are giving much higher returns than other traditional crops. But the initial investment is very high. You have to wait for four to five years for breakeven," Pawar said.
Flower production has boomed in India, as its eight percent annual growth boosts incomes in the middle class. Wedding halls are often crammed with blossoms and frequent festivals are seen as an occasion for garlanding with hot-hued blooms.
"Previously, people had been using flowers only for big functions. But now, even for a small function they are buying," said Kiran Nanavare, a 31-year-old flower trader based in Pune in Maharashtra.
"Every year we are seeing a rise in demand."
Flower stalls dot every market and many street corners in India's big cities, selling loose stems or elaborate bouquets and set-piece presentation arrangements.
The amount of land dedicated to flower production in India jumped 55 percent to 183,000 hectares in the five years to 2009/10, according to the National Horticulture Board.
Cut flower production rose to 6,667 million stems in 2009/10, from 2,071 million in 2004/05.
Prices for out-to-please gerbera can rise to seven rupees in the peak wedding season, Nanavare said, but can fall to four rupees in mid-June during the monsoon months when heavy rains and sultry temperatures keep partying subdued.
"Interior decorators buy during the wedding season in large amounts, but throughout the year demand remains there from small vendors" who organize buffet functions and other ornamental occasions, Nanavare said.
Some farmers in the country's rugged rural expanses are now trying to explore the global market as well, mostly with Dutch roses, but their share in the world market is still tiny.
"We don't have cold storage facilities for exports. Once we get that we will test how demand is for Indian flowers in other countries, where prices are much higher," Pawar said.
($1 = 45.065 Indian Rupees)
Editing by Elaine Lies