Fifteen years after growing kinnows, Harbinder Singh Sandhu decided to uproot the trees in 32 out of his 50-acre orchard. He plans to uproot the remaining 18 acres as well over the next two years.
This farmer from Bhikhowal village in Hoshiarpur isn’t the only one. Sarabjit Singh of Mona Kalan, Anil Sood of Bassi Gulam Hussain and Sadhu Ram Saini of Bohan village — all in Hoshiarpur district — have uprooted their entire 30, 15 and eight acre kinnow orchards, respectively. Over 200 kinnow growers in Hoshiarpur are estimated to have uprooted their orchards, ranging from 2.5 acres to 50 acres in past couple of years. They are all returning to the traditional wheat-paddy-maize- vegetables cropping system.
Why are they doing this to their kinnow orchards that they had painstakingly nurtured over the years and reaped the rich harvest from these trees until recently?
“It makes no sense to grow kinnow when our price realisations have been static at Rs 8-9 per kg, even as input costs have more than doubled from Rs 10,000-12,000 to Rs 25,000-30,000 per acre in the last ten years,” notes Sandhu.
Punjab grows kinnows on roughly 48,000 hectares area, which includes 27,000 hectares in the Abohar-Fazilka belt, 6,300 hectares in Hoshiarpur, 5,600 hectares in Muktsar and 4,000 hectares in Bathinda districts. Much of this increase — from 19,000 to 39,000 hectares — took place between 2004-05 and 2009-10, largely on the back of the state’s push for crop diversification (away from paddy and wheat) and its setting up kinnow processing plants at Hoshiarpur and Abohar in 2007, along with citrus estates providing farm implements, grading, waxing and other facilities under a single roof.
But the period since then has registered lower acreage increases. In the last 2-3 years, farmers have actually been uprooting 700-800 hectares of orchards annually, ending their love affair with the citrus that is considered Punjab’s “King Fruit”.
Sadhu Ram Saini blames the situation mainly on inadequate government support for marketing. “They made big promises to farmers that their entire crop will be purchased and established two juice processing units at a cost of over Rs 84 crore. But today, these are not even operational for reasons only the government knows,” he complains.
On why the two plants with capacity to process 20 tonnes of kinnows per hour were lying idle, the managing director of Punjab Agro Industries Corporation, Kahan Singh Pannu, said that “we will run the units soon” without elaborating further.
Ajay Vir Jakhar, one of the Abohar belt’s biggest kinnow farmers, believes the current problem is no less due to lack of research in developing new varieties with extended harvesting periods, making them more amenable to processing in plants that can run for longer time.
In oranges, there are two harvesting seasons for an early and late crop between November and March. The entire kinnow crop, by contrast, is harvested during December-January, which is also the time when oranges hit the market. It naturally results in a citrus glut, translating into poor realisations for farmers. “Punjab has just one kinnow variety that was introduced first in Pakistan from Florida way back in the 1960s. Since then, no research has been done to develop new varieties having longer harvesting periods,” he points out.
According to Jakhar, a lot of orchards are being uprooted even in the main kinnow belt of Abohar. Kinnow requires dry land with water tables below 12 feet. The Abohar area, on the other hand, has been seeing water tables rising to 7-8 feet levels and associated problems of salinity. It has led to fungal disease attacks going up manifold. Traders have, in turn, exploited the situation by selling spurious pesticides to farmers. Farmers have also suffered from use of root stock from poor quality plants hawked by unscrupulous nursery owners. “These plants are susceptible to diseases such as fruit fly, which result in premature dropping of fruits and reduction in yields (from 1,200-1,500 to 250-300 per tree),” says Jakhar, who owns a National Horticulture Board “four-star” rated kinnow nursery supplying planting material to even states like Andhra Pradesh.