RED Delicious and Royal Delicious were the first apple varieties introduced in Himachal Pradesh by Samuel Stokes around a century back. From these traditional plants that can grow up to 30 to 35 feet and yield 40 to 60 boxes in their prime, the transition to the latest spur and high-colour strain varieties, which is already underway, could gather greater pace this year. The trigger would be the inadequate snowfall in the lower and middle apple belts, despite abundant snowfall at higher altitudes, leading to the traditional varieties performing below par at low and middle elevations.
For more than a decade now, snow has been receding from the low and middle apple belts. While an elevation of 4,500 feet to 5,500 feet is classified as the low belt, 5,500 to 7,000 feet is the middle belt, and above that, the high belt. Earlier, when it snowed in the higher reaches, these elevations would receive substantial snowfall too. It’s no longer the case. “Over the past decade or so, a decline has been observed in snowfall in low and middle heights. Climate change and meteorological factors are the major reasons behind the receding snowfall,” says Surender Paul, Director, Indian Meteorological Department, Himachal Pradesh.
In the absence of abundant snow, the ‘chilling hours’, over 1,000, required by the traditional apple varieties are difficult to meet. Also, the absorption of nutrients by the soil and eventually by the plant is also impaired. As a result, the traditional varieties are struggling to produce quality fruit at these heights. This has forced growers to switch to modern varieties that need comparatively much less ‘chilling hours’.
“We received just 3-4 inches of snow this year. The traditional ‘delicious’ varieties are not performing at low heights, and people are rushing towards the latest ones,” says Pratap Chauhan, an orchardist from Kotkhai, who has an orchard at an elevation of 5,000 feet. “Not many are considering the traditional varieties for elevations less than 7,000 feet,” he adds.
Compared to the new varieties, though, the lifespan of traditional varieties is very long. There are trees that are almost 80 years old.
Horticulture expert SP Bhardwaj believes the shift to newer varieties is the need of the hour. “It’s an intelligent decision. At these heights, the traditional plants are struggling to produce the fruit with good colour and size. On the other hand, the newer varieties have no such issues and are fetching better prices,” says Bhardwaj. “Also, all varieties suffer from genetic degradation after a certain period of time, leading to a decline in the quality of fruit. So, it’s imperative that apple growers move to the latest varieties.”
The shift, though desired, is easier said than done. The input cost is much more, especially at the outset, in newer varieties. The investment includes expenditure on irrigation, associated structure and hail nets. Compared to the traditional varieties, the new ones demand more care. “It’s easy to replace a few plants, but when you need to replace the whole orchard, especially if one is switching to rootstocks, the cost is very high,” says Dikshit Chauhan, an orchardist from Jubbal.
The government does offer some support in the form of subsidies on plants, anti-hail net, irrigation, etc, but the budget seems to run short. In certain areas, people have been waiting for net subsidy for a decade.
While the farmers may have found a way to deal with the changing climatic conditions, they are struggling to stay afloat amid a deluge of imported apples, particularly from Iran. Due to the heavy arrival of Iranian apple this year, there is no demand for the local apples that were stored during the running season (when the harvest is still on, or has just finished). “Both farmers and arhtiyas have suffered huge losses on stored apple this year. The market is flooded with cheap Iranian apple and our people are forced to sell their produce at throwaway prices,” says NS Chaudhary, president of the state arhtiya sangh. “This will have an adverse impact on the next season. The arhtiyas, suffering losses, will struggle to clear payments and both growers and traders will be scared to store the fruit next year. And if the entire produce comes to the market at one time, the prices will crash.”
While apples are imported from a number of countries, the import from Iran is particularly troublesome. “The problem with the Iranian apple is the volume and the cost at which it is reaching the Indian market. It’s available for as low as Rs40-60 per kg,” says Lokender Bisht, an apple grower from Rohru.
Earlier, it was routed via Afghanistan-Pakistan (under SAFTA) to avoid import duty. With the regime change in Afghanistan, the by-road arrival has significantly dropped. Now, it’s coming through the sea but it is still available at cheap prices because of the rampant under-invoicing and low cost of production in Iran, Bisht adds. The growers feel that doubling the import duty from the current 50 per cent would give some elbow space to the local apple.
The ever-increasing cost of production has pushed the local apple into a weak position against the Iranian apple. As per the rough estimates of growers, the per kg cost of production has reached around Rs30. “An apple box is fetching more or less the same price as in 2010. The input cost, however, has increased manifold. The cost of insecticides, pesticides, fertilisers and packaging material has seen a sharp rise, the subsidies are shrinking or closing down altogether, the transport and labour charges have also increased significantly. All this has led to a massive decrease in profit margins,” says Dikshit Chauhan.
And last but not the least, the growers believe the marketing of the fruit needs a big thrust. “The government must find a market where we can export fruit. Some efforts were made last year to explore the market in the Middle East; these need to continue,” says Harish Chauhan, president of the Fruit, Vegetable and Flower Growers Association. “There’s an urgent need to set up processing plants and small controlled atmosphere (CA) store facilities in the apple belt. This would go a long way in saving the growers from market forces and ensuring a remunerative price for their produce,” he adds.
Rs 5,000-CRORE TRADE
The apple industry in Himachal is worth Rs5,000 crore. In terms of the total market share, the state produces 20-25% fruit, while Kashmir tops the list with a market share of 70-75%. The total apple production is around 20-25 lakh MT; Kashmir produces 14-18 lakh MT and HP 4-7 lakh MT.
How Indian apple is different
Himachal apple is sweeter, juicier and tastier than imported apple, which comes into the market six months after harvest. In Kashmir, Delicious and Kullu Delicious are the main traditional varieties, with good shelf life, sweetness.
The Way ahead: Diversify
The idea of diversifying into stone fruits, mainly plum, is gaining foothold in the apple belts. “Many people are diversifying their fruit basket, and planting plums, peaches, cherries and apricots,” says Deepak Singha, founder of the Plum Growers Forum. Compared to apple, he adds, the input costs and the prevalence and management of diseases is much less in stone fruits.
Plantation time is from December to March. The varieties being preferred at low altitudes are Gallas, King Rot, Adams, Zad One, Jeromine; Red Velox, Oregon Spur 2; Early Red One in middle heights and Royal, Ace and Fuji at high altitudes.
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