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Kashmir Growers Left High and Dry as Himachal, Iranian Variants Slice Into Demand

A market glut and competition from its Iranian cousin has hit the Kashmiri apple very hard for the first time in many years. As a result, Kashmiri apples are fetching abysmally low rates, leaving the farmers, who toil in orchards for months, exasperated.

Mohammad Yaqoob Gatoo, a farmer from Shopian which is known for producing the best varieties, says a box of apples weighing 10kg is fetching him only Rs 600 to Rs 700 — Rs 500 less than the last three years. This is in stark contrast to mid-August when the same box would sell for Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,300. Apples had then started to arrive in the country’s mandis, but when more supplies reached them, the rates fell flat.

“We used to get Rs 60 per kg of apples 20 years ago. These days, we earn no profit,” Gatoo rues.

Farmers say profit margins are diminishing because the rates of the packaging material, fertilisers and freight on transportation have spiked. “For months, we tend to our orchards, hoping we will make a profit. But when the fruit was shipped out this season, we got peanuts,” he says.

Farmers and horticulture officials say a bumper crop due to the adoption of high-yielding density plantation has ended up hitting the farmers hard. Since 2010, many Valley farmers have switched to the high-yielding Italian root stock that has not only boosted production but also ensured early maturation of fruit. A warm March ensured apple trees flowered early by a fortnight to a month.

Growers sold a kilogram of apples at Rs 120 a few weeks ago, but now rates have dipped to Rs 40-60, says Mohammad Yaqoob Gatoo, a farmer from Shopian. (Mufti Islah/News18)

Early maturation of crop would have rung happy for the growers but it also posed competition to the Valley apples. From mid-July to mid-August, apples from Himachal Pradesh hit the fruit mandis and next come the Valley apples. “This year, there was a collision of sorts. Fruits from both regions started to arrive at the same time,” says Shahnawaz Khan, a fruit grower from Pinjora in Shopian.

Ghulam Rasool Mir, director of the horticulture department, admits there was a bumper produce in Kashmir this year. He says some varieties were ready a fortnight earlier due to a relatively warm climate. “And when apples reached Delhi mandis, the supply to demand ratio got skewed. And prices fell,” he says.

The Kashmiri and Himachali apples are not only competing with each other, but have another rival to take on – an Iranian cousin which is being imported through the Wagah border and sea routes.

Farmers say the rates were good mid-August, but as more supplies reach the mandis, the demand is going down. “Growers sold a kilogram of apples at Rs 120 a few weeks ago, but now rates have dipped to Rs 40-60,” regrets Gatoo.

Shipping Fruit a Handicap

Growers have another issue as well. They are not able to transport the fruit smoothly from Srinagar to mandis outside. The fruit trucks are often stopped for days on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. In the last two days, fruit growers and agents have protested in various mandis of Kashmir, seeking unhindered passage for the fruit trucks.

Growers said the trucks are not allowed to pass freely for days, resulting in loss of fruit quality. “Why are the trucks not allowed to reach Delhi in a single day? Our fruit gets damaged because of these halts,” Gatoo points out.

Ghulam Rasool Mir says he received such grievances, but added that his department, along with the marketing wing, held a series of meetings with traffic, police and civil officials to sort out the issue. “A high-level meeting is taking place today. We are trying to find a resolution,” he says.

The Valley alone produces 20 to 22 metric tonnes of apples annually and horticulture contributes around 8% to J&K’s GDP. (Mufti Islah/News18)

“Fruit laden trucks that get delayed result in loss of fruit quality. People want to enjoy fresh fruit and not scratchy or overripe ones. The highway halts affect the sales realisation of the farmer,” says Majid Wafaie, president of the Valley’s cold storage facilities.

While farmers like Gatoo say the government should import the Iranian apple from November onwards when the Valley is done with its apples to save farmers’ business, Wafaie blames the Iranian apples for being a “bio-security threat”.

“This bio-security threat (as quarantine pests were found in Iranian Kiwi consignment) is taken very lightly by the government. They must act on it,” he warns.

Looking Within

Fourth-generation apple farmer Shahnawaz Khan and new entrant Mian Naksh believe Kashmiri orchardists need to strategize well and embrace new technologies and science if they are to grow in their profession.

From pruning to pesticide-spraying to flowering and packaging to grading and marketing their produce, the farmers need to be updated, they say.

Khan and Naqsh travelled to Delhi a couple of times in August to sell their produce and fetched good prices; Rs 120 to Rs 130 per kg. The duo have adopted the high-density plantation and added varieties like Granismith, Gala Redlum, Scarlet Evasni, Mema Gala, Gala Schnico along with the traditional Red Delicious and Golden apples.

“We are available on social media and we market our produce both online and offline. We have the awareness and use it to our advantage,” says Khan.

Naqsh believes good and honest grading of apples and snazzy packaging will help farmers fetch better rates. “Farmers need to explore things on their own, not depend solely on the middleman,” he says.

To avoid further drop in fruit prices, the two believe farmers whose orchards are at a higher elevation should not harvest their fruit for the next month. “People who live above 5,500-feet altitude can hold their fruit for a month so that demand picks up again. Currently, the market is saturated. We should push the fruit to mandis only when there is demand,” says Khan.

Mian Naksh, a new entrant in apple farming, says honest grading and snazzy packaging will help farmers fetch better rates. (Mufti Islah/News18)

Wafaie and Mir say there is need to build more cold storage facilities. “At present, there are only 40 cold storage rooms and they can hold 2.5 lakh metric tonnes of apples. This is only 10% of the fruit,” says Wafaie.

“I have requested people associated with fruit trade to build more such facilities. A person who owns one should build another. We are there to facilitate it,” says Mir.

The falling price of Kashmiri apples in markets outside has growers and traders worried as they fear huge losses if the current trend continues. The Valley alone produces 20 to 22 metric tonnes of apples annually and horticulture contributes around 8% to J&K’s GDP.

Notwithstanding this year’s setback, apple orchards on modern lines are mushrooming in the Valley landscape. Many paddy farmers have converted their land by growing apples. The high-density plantation that entails growing Italian and Netherlands apple stocks is phenomenal in Kashmir. Farmers are able to reap benefits within the first few years. This is in contrast to the traditional apple trees which fruit after 10 to 15 years.

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