For Himachal Pradesh’s apple growers, this should have been the best possible year. Favourable weather — an extended winter and good snowfall necessary to meet the minimum chill hours for the fruit-bearing trees to blossom — promised a bumper harvest. The ban on imports from China since June 2017, the Narendra Modi government hiking the customs duty on US apples from 50% to 70% this June and, more recently, the lockdown in Kashmir causing disruptions in fruit movement from the Valley, ought to have made it a rich harvest as well.
Instead, what they are currently reaping is disappointment.
The crop has, no doubt, turned out better than the last two years. In 2017, Himachal’s apple production was estimated at 2.23 crore boxes (each containing 20 kg of fruit), which fell to 2.18 crore boxes last year. In this apple marketing season from August, arrivals in mandis across the state — mainly Shimla and also Mandi, Kullu, Sirmaur and Chamba districts — have already touched 2.65 crore boxes till October 8, as per data from the horticulture department. With the crop from Kinnaur — a high-altitude belt at 8,000 feet-plus, as opposed to Shimla’s orchards that are in the mid- and high-hill range just below or above 7,000 feet — to arrive after mid-October, the total figure is expected to be 3-3.3 crore boxes.
“The crop has been generally good, especially in the mid-hill belt. Only in the high hills, the fruit size was affected because of rains and thunderstorms in August at the time of maturity. But even here, there was no problem during the flowering (from March in low hills to May in the high altitudes) and fruit-setting (April-June) periods,” notes Rohit Thakur, the owner of an apple orchard at Jubbal in Shimla district and also grandson of former chief minister Thakur Ram Lal.
For the state’s growers, the source of disquiet right now isn’t the size of their crop as much as the prices.
“Initially the markets showed up well. The early varieties from the lower and middle hills fetched Rs 1,800-2,200 per box. But after mid-September, the rates have crashed and there are hardly any buyers,” says Prakash Thakur, a former vice chairman of HP Horticultural Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation Ltd (better known as HPMC) and orchardist from Thanedar in Shimla district.
According to him, the higher duty on Washington apples, on top of the ban on Chinese imports, has had very little impact. “A few growers in the low hills who were able to market their crop towards end-July/early-August would have got some advantage. On the other hand, Kashmir apples not reaching the markets has not been of any benefit, as demand has practically vanished after mid-September,” he adds.
The average price this season for the standard Royal Delicious apples has been Rs 1,200-1,500 per box, while it was Rs 1,700-2,000 last year.
“It’s a mystery why we have not got a good rate. Till now, everyone was blaming foreign apples, but I’m convinced it is the arthiyas (commission agents) who have engineered this crash,” remarks Chetan Bragta. This young grower of Kotkhai, whose father Narinder Bragta is a former horticulture minister and sitting Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from the Jubbal-Kotkhai Assembly constituency, has produced 5,000 boxes of apples from his family’s 60-bigha (12 acres) orchard.
Most growers sell their produce straight from their orchards or bring it to the mandis. The bigger traders, who buy through the arthiyas, stock the apples in controlled atmosphere (CA) storehouses for selling in the off-season when prices go up. The bulk of these stores are outside Himachal, which has only a handful of them belonging to the likes of HPMC and the Adani Group.
“We need a permanent solution to break the hold of arthiyas and traders. And that can come only from setting up more CA stores within the state,” points out Rakesh Singha, general secretary of the Himachal Pradesh Kisan Sabha and lone CPI(M) legislator from Theog, which is also a major apple-growing area of Shimla.
India annually produces 23-25 lakh tonnes of apples, with Jammu & Kashmir (18-19 lt) and Himachal Pradesh (5-6 lt) accounting for the bulk of it. The country, in 2018-19, also imported 2.83 lt, mainly from the US (1.28 lt), Chile (0.54 lt), New Zealand (0.26 lt), Italy (0.22 lt) and Turkey (0.16 lt). During April-August 2019, apple imports have totalled 1.61 lt, with Chile (0.42 lt), US (0.35 lt), Italy (0.28 lt), New Zealand (0.17 lt) and Poland (0.13 lt) being the major countries of origin.
At 3 crore boxes and Rs 1,500/box, Himachal’s apple economy is worth
Rs 4,500 crore. Some growers are trying to beat the market by growing premium varieties or going in for high-density plantation. Among them is Prem Singh Chauhan from Jaltahar village in Kotkhai, who claims to have even developed his own ‘APS’ apple variety, for which he has applied for a patent.
“I have realised Rs 4,800 for a 28-kg box, which is more than the Rs 2,000-2,500 (per 20-kg box) rates for Washington apples,” states Chauhan, whose 15-bigha (three acres) orchard plot has been visited by Indian Council of Agricultural Research scientists, even as he awaits the award from the Controller General of Patents, Designs & Trade Marks.
Another such progressive grower is Sandeep Singha. An architect, he, like Chauhan, has converted his entire 100-bigha (20 acre) orchard at Kotgarh in Shimla district into a high-density plantation. “We cannot compete with imported apples without growing new varieties or adopting new planting technologies,” he tells The Indian Express.
Many young growers, who have returned to manage their family orchards after working as IT, engineering or management professionals outside the state, are the ones taking the lead. Their new high-density plantation orchards have 300-400 trees per bigha, as compared with the normal 50 or so. Besides, they are planting new imported varieties such as Red Chief, Super Chief, Oregon Spur and Scarlet Spur, fetching much better rates than the “traditional” Red Delicious fruit.
Motilal Chauhan got an average rate of Rs 3,200 for the 2,500 boxes of Scarlet Spur (II) and Jeromine apples, out of the 6,000 boxes that he harvested from his 20-bigha (four acres) orchard at Dhangvi village of Kotkhai. Moreover, this price was for produce purchased directly from the farm-gate. Chauhan attributes his higher realisations to the selection of superior root-stock imported from Italy and also good orchard management practices.
“The growers who have replaced their 30-40-year-old trees and raised new plantations from root-stock brought from Italy, US and New Zealand are the ones repeating a good harvest today,” sums up the former horticulture minister Narinder Bragta.