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How Climate change is hurting Kashmir’s apple industry

Can the high-density Italian apple species salvage the situation and extricate Kashmir apple growers from climate fury

By Younis Dar
New Update

publive-image Apple orchards | Pic courtesy: Special Arrangement

Imtiyaz Ahmad stared with utter grief at his apple orchard, which had just been devastated by the unseasonal snowfall that occurred in Kashmir on 22-23 October last year. The trees had crumbled under the weight of snow along with the apples that were just days away from being harvested.

The onset of early snowfall can be perilous for this Himalayan region of apple growers with trees yet to shed leaves and apples still unplucked. The trend of unseasonal snow is now becoming a regular occurrence in Kashmir, with the experts blaming the weather disturbances on climate change.

Ahmad’s orchard is situated in the suburbs of district Pulwama in South Kashmir, known for producing high-quality apple varieties along with its nearby town of Shopian. More than 30 per cent of the orchards were destroyed in the October snowfall in 2021, while the previous years of 2020 and 2019 had been even harsh for the apple growers.

“My family gave its blood and sweat to these apple trees. Everything is gone in one day. Nothing can compensate this,” Ahmad laments.

Farmers across South Kashmir watched in dismay as heavy snow buried apple trees in thousands of acres of orchards. With fruits strewn on the ground, trees could be seen torn asunder by the weight of the snow.

Kashmir’s economy, majorly dependent on agriculture, suffered a huge blow in recent years. The farmers started looking for alternative means of generating income. Therefore, the experts worry that the extremely popular ‘Delicious’ variety of apples may be unsustainable in the valley, with erratic and unpredictable weather events becoming a norm. Kashmir in India is best known for the quality of apples it produces, which are exported around the world every year.

publive-image Apple orchard in Kashmir | Pic courtesy: Younis Dar

With exports exceeding 20 lakh metric tons each year, the apple economy is estimated to be worth over a billion dollars, including the employment it generates. Kashmir produces 75% of the total apple production in India. The erratic weather events of the last few years have severely impacted the production of traditional variety fruit in the valley.

Is climate change to be blamed?
The researchers are suggesting solid indications that climate change may be responsible for the erratic weather conditions in recent years. In fact, they go to the extent of stating that the apple orchards might not sustain if such climatic conditions prevail.

By putting together remotely sensed data and field observations, experts have mapped the snowfall distribution and snow depths during the snowfall events in November 2018 and November 2019.

“Besides, we used ERA-5 re-analysis climate datasets to investigate the causes of these erratic snowfall events, pointing to an early arrival of Western Disturbances (WD) to the area,” says the research paper, authored by Irfan Rashid from Kashmir University and other experts.

“In turn, satellite data analysis reveals that the apple orchards cover roughly 9.8% (1329 km2) of the entire surface of Kashmir Valley, out of which 32.6% were mild to severely damaged by snow. The areas in South Kashmir suffered the most from the untimely snowfall, with an area affected estimated at 264 km2, followed by North Kashmir (151 km2) and Central Kashmir (18 km2). The snowfall caused substantial harvest losses in orchards ranging from 4–50% with an average of 35%,” it adds.

The paper claims that the “large economic losses related to the early arrival of Western Disturbances led to a virtual grounding of the horticultural sector in 2018 and 2019.” In fact, the unseasonal snow falls extended to 2020 and 2021, wrecking the apple orchards even more and damaging thousands of hectares of crop.

The valley of Kashmir lies between the humongous mountain ranges of Pir Panjal and the Himalayas, making it highly vulnerable to climate change. Climate change, which has already become a global issue, has adversely impacted several natural processes and ecosystems. The Himalayas have lost a major part of the glaciers in the last few decades, which is blamed on global warming, extending the impact to the entire Indian subcontinent dependent on its resources for survival.

publive-image The Himalayas | Pic courtesy: Special Arrangement

The Kashmiri farmer is, therefore, left with little choice. Climate change being a global phenomenon, there may not be an immediate solution to the crisis. However, many farmers are now turning to cultivate a new variety of apple – the high-density Italian species. The high-density orchards involve a radically different way of cultivation, involving less water and pesticide consumption and maintenance. The fruit is harvested as early as August, which makes it immune to early snowfalls. It’s these reasons that have made the Italian variety a favourite among the Kashmiri apple growers. The farmers are reaping far higher returns in a very short time.

Italian species as the panacea?
The introduction of high-density Italian apple varieties has been pitched as the solution to the climate crisis affecting the apple growers in the valley. From our interaction with many agriculture experts and farmers in Kashmir, we found that the newly introduced Italian high-density apple nursery has transformed the fortunes of Kashmiri apple growers, who now no longer need to wait for October-November to harvest the fruit and can do so in August itself to escape the harm caused by an early snowfall.

The state government has been promoting the high-density plantations believing it will revive the fortunes of the Kashmiri apple farmers. Introduced almost a decade ago, the government has extended subsidies and schemes to support the Italian nursery.

Talking to The Probe, Director-General Horticulture, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat, said the high-density varieties are good, and fruit production doesn’t take much time as compared to the traditional ones. “We are working to introduce better and latest varieties, than even Italian, to give the farmers a chance to earn a higher income. The farmers should trust the government schemes and adopt the newly introduced varieties,” he added.

The Southern district of Pulwama has adopted the new species much faster, with an increasing number of farmers removing old ‘Delicious’ variety of apples. The apple growers here are optimistic about the Italian variety, which grows faster and has a much higher yield.

While a traditional apple tree could take at least a decade to start bearing fruit, the high-density nursery is precocious and starts bearing fruit in the second year of plantation. The plantations happen in high density with a few feet distance between two plants which would mean a higher density of produce. The apples have deep red colour and are juicier than traditional ones.

Bhat is optimistic about the Italian variety, saying that the government has set a high target of converting more land into such high-density apple orchards. He, however, does not believe that it could be climate change producing uncertain weather events in the valley.

“Global warming can affect everything in future, especially the fast-melting glaciers of the Himalayas. Our horticulture is dependent on weather. We have rich and diverse horticultural resources in Kashmir because of snow in winters,” he adds.

One important feature of the Italian orchards is that it uses the drip irrigation technique, which helps in distributing water locally, directing it along narrow plant rows. Experts say that in terms of water conservation, the new orchard systems have been a game-changer. Although, some investment is involved in setting up the modern orchard with its roof and irrigation network that could be covered through the subsidies offered by the government.

publive-image Kashmir morning boat markets | Pic courtesy: Special Arrangement

The apple growers are now no longer concerned about the unpredictable weather, which can bring with it snow or even hailstorms destroying the crop. The high-density orchard is equipped with a special canopy protecting it from harsh weather events, a critical shield lacking in traditional orchards.

Ahmad has now moved over the loss caused by previous years to his orchard and has set up a full-fledged Italian high-density orchard. He says he had to invest around Rs 20 lakhs to set up everything over two-and-a-half-acre land, which he hopes to recover within just two years. He’s confident of harvesting a bumper produce in just a few years.

High-density orchards bringing cheer back to farmers

The Probe spoke to many entrepreneurs associated with building infrastructure, arranging logistics, and managing disease control in the high-density apple orchards in Kashmir, all of whom said their business had been booming.

“This is the future. The Kashmiri apple grower has moved on from ‘Delicious’ and other traditional brands of apple and is experimenting with a promising new fruit, which can guarantee him handsome returns on his investment,” says Ajaz Rashid, one such entrepreneur from Pulwama.
He claims the new brand of apple is guaranteeing five times more revenue to the farmers. “The orchard is easily and quickly set up, and the returns start flowing in from the second year, so why shouldn’t the farmers go for it?” he adds.

Last year in March, the J&K government launched the modified High Density (HD) plantation scheme, which envisages converting some 5500 hectares of land in the UT under high-density plantation to double farmers’ income. According to the government, the scheme is intended to enhance farmer income and boost the productivity of the fruit. The scheme covers a minimum of 1 kanal to a maximum of 20 kanals per beneficiary, with farmers having lesser land getting priority.

“The high-density orchards have ushered in a radically new way of farming. Modern techniques and innovations are being optimally used to boost revenues. Ultimately, this new method will be adopted by all the apple growers in the valley, because there’s no reason for them not to try it,” Ajaz adds.

He says initially there may be some investment, but these orchards require the least maintenance. The pesticides required are very less compared to the traditional apple orchards, and it produces a good crop every year.

Under the new scheme launched by the government, the orchardists are required to provide around 50 percent of the funding (which he can take from the bank) while the subsidy bears the rest. The government will provide inspection and technical specifications of the trellis system and guide the farmers on the irrigation patterns under the scheme.

Increasing market competition

Another challenge faced by the Kashmiri apples has been the flooding of foreign fruits into the Indian market, especially from countries like Afghanistan and Iran. According to recent reports, apple dealers from Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand wrote to the central government to stop the “illegal sale of Iranian apples” in the markets.

“We demand an immediate ban should be imposed on the import of apples from Iran and the duty for other imported apples be raised to 100% with a minimum billing of $1/kg for calculation of duty to avoid dumping of produce in our country,” the letter sent by the apple dealers to Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Narendra Singh Tomar, read.

The flooding of Iranian duty-free imports has severely impacted the domestic farmers, reducing the demand in the market for good quality produce. Traders in Azadpur Mandi in Delhi, which is Asia’s largest market for wholesale fruit, were dismayed at the presence of cheap Iranian apples, which had impacted the market.

A box of apples from Iran was being sold at Rs 650-850 in the market, while apples from Kashmir and Himachal sell at around 900-1200, giving it tough competition. The traders and farmers have been demanding the imposition of cess and import duties on the product to give it fair competition in the market.

The production of bad quality apples from Kashmir due to lousy weather also lessened its demand in the Indian market in the last few years. The result was that millions of boxes were left in cold storage with no probable customers.

However, the apples produced through high-density farming are of a higher quality and don’t get impacted by the climate in the region.

Apple production to skyrocket

Kashmir is soon expected to enhance its apple production from around 11-12 metric tons per hectare and try to match up to the European countries where around 40-50 metric tons of fruit is produced per hectare. The two districts of South Kashmir – Shopian and Pulwama – are spearheading the high-density revolution in the valley’s horticulture sector.

It is feared many popular varieties of apple in the valley will shrink with the adoption of newer varieties, and many farmers have been reluctant to embrace the new trend. However, one expert told us the farmers would ultimately adopt a high-density variety since it gives maximum revenue and costs less in terms of maintenance.

There are apprehensions about the new variety obliterating the famous Kashmiri ‘Delicious’ variety, which has been dominating the markets for ages. Although the experts say the fear of loss of local variety is being exaggerated and that the modern method of cultivation was capable of producing equally good quality fruit.

Kashmir has a total area of 3.33 lakh hectares under fruit cultivation, producing around 20.35 lakh metric tons of fruit annually. The apple orchards have been taking more and more land area with each passing year, because of high cash returns and low maintenance. Another trend is the shift to high-density orchards, which is accelerating in the snowfall-prone districts of South Kashmir.

publive-image Apple orchard in Kashmir | Pic courtesy: Younis Dar

According to the Director Horticulture, the government is introducing weather warning mechanisms and assisting farmers with technical and logistical knowledge to ensure higher and superior yields. The target is to boost production in the coming years, helping the farmers earn higher revenues as well as improving the state’s economy.

The government last year organised the first-of-its-kind apple festival in the valley, hoping to promote the local fruit among the buyers from other states. The festival, inaugurated by Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha and Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar, brought the sellers and buyers together, helping build relationships and familiarising the non-state traders with the local dealers.

The government hopes to bridge between the fruit growers in the valley and the traders across India with such initiatives. After all, the apple economy sustains a large population in Kashmir, which is not only immune to the frequent lockdowns and curfews in Kashmir, but assures significant revenue to the farmers.

The way forward
There are also indications that the current weather patterns may be temporary in nature, since they have been occurring for a long time. Some experts say that apple production could resume to normal in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, apple cultivation is currently undergoing a major transformation from traditional to high-density, which involves an entirely different way of modern farming.

Many experts agree that Kashmiri farmers may have found a way to evade the onslaught of climate change and keep growing their profits with the Italian apple nursery. However, it’s too early to anticipate whether the new breed of apple will be sustainable in the long run in Kashmir. There simply isn’t enough data for making any assumptions about the future.

The question on everyone’s mind is, will the high-density variety match up to consumer expectations or even surpass the popularity of the ‘Delicious’ variety of apples?

It’s just too early to tell.


Younis Dar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to human rights, environment and defence.