Shimla, November 19
Land under apple cultivation in Himachal has increased by around 1,000 hectares every year over the past 15 years but the production, surprisingly, has declined. In terms of production, the best year was 2010 when the state produced 8.92 lakh metric tonnes of apple. The production this year will barely be around half of the 2010 yield. In between, the closest the state came to the 2010 production was in 2015, when 7.77 lakh metric tonnes of apple was produced, still quite distant from the record yield.
Growers, scientists and bureaucrats unanimously hold ageing orchards and changing climatic conditions responsible for the declining production. “Our traditional plants are getting old, and are yielding much less fruit than they did in their prime years. So, the production is automatically going down,” says Lokinder Bisht, president of the Progressive Growers Association.
For Sanjeev Thakur, president of the Chuwara Valley Apple Society, the changing climatic conditions are as big a factor as ageing orchards behind the plunging production. “Weather has become quite erratic over the past one decade. The snow pattern has changed, the chilling-hour requirements of the traditional varieties are not being met and the frequency and distribution of hailstorm has increased a lot. The adverse weather is affecting our production as well as quality,” he says.
Scientists agree with apple growers that the production graph isn’t going to take an upward turn anytime soon. “As per a rough estimate, apple trees on 50,000 to 60,000 hectares (out of the total 1,15,000 hectares under apple cultivation) are over 45 to 50 years old. These trees have lived their productive economic life and their yield will continue to decrease,” says DP Sharma, Head of Department of Fruit Science, University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni.
Sharma says, “The apple proportion in declining orchards will keep increasing over the next few years. The trend will reverse only when new orchards come up and the full impact of high density orchards kicks in.”
The removal of ageing trees and new plantation can enhance the production, but it’s not that straightforward. In the case of traditional delicious varieties, apple trees take at least 10 to 12 years to start bearing fruit. Even new varieties take three to four years to start bearing fruit. In this scenario, it’s a very difficult decision for growers to remove old trees even if the production is depleting. “Most growers will replant in a phased manner. It is not economically viable for most growers to change plants in one go,” says Sharma.
Besides, replantation in old orchards is not as productive as the first generation plants. As much of the available land is already under apple cultivation in major fruit belts, replantation is happening in old orchards. “The mortality rate of plants is high in old orchards and second or third generation plants also don’t match the production level of the first generation plant. So, it’s another challenge the growers are facing,” says Sharma.
The government is also concerned about the diminishing apple production, which supports the livelihood of lakhs of households. “We are focusing on providing good planting material and the latest technology to help growers increase apple production,” says C Palrasu, Secretary, Horticulture.
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