Apple growers in Himachal Pradesh face bleak future as traditional crop varieties fail to bear brunt of climate change

Ashwani Sharma
Earlier the apples restricted to Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Solan and Sirmaur has now shown tremendous expansion to high altitude belts in Kinnaur like Kalpa, Sangla, Pooh and Reckon Peo.

Shimla: When noted American missionary Samuel Evans Stokes, who later changed his name to Satyanand Stokes, the man credited with Himachal Pradesh's apple revolution, decided to introduce high-quality apple cultivation in the state, one factor weighed strongly in his mind was the local climatic conditions that was immensely favourable for growing apples.

Beginning at Kotgarh-Thanedar area of Shimla district, Stokes' initiative to grow delicious American varieties of apples paid off so well that it has impeccably changed the fortunes of the local farmers. Today, the state is the 'apple bowl' of India also exporting delicious apples outside India, is a prospering economy of Rs 3,500 crore -- 85 percent of the state's total fruit production. There are more than 1.20 lakh farmers engaged in apple cultivation.

Well, that's the brighter side of the apple story in Himachal Pradesh, where the farmers' toil of growing fruits and off-seasonal crops under natural (without irrigation) conditions earned them country-wide recognition.

But, slowly there are worries growing in the apple-producing belt. The crop is on a gradual decline during the past two decades. The weather conditions namely declining snow (drastically reducing the mandatory chilling hours), high-temperature variations, erratic rains, hail and thunderstorms often turn into major disadvantage for the growers completely upsetting the advantage that the legendary Satyanand Stokes saw 100 years back.

Studies done by the scientists of Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry (UoHF), Solan have established, beyond doubt, that climatic conditions and global warming, has left an impact. The apple crop has become more vulnerable to the change, not alone in terms of decline in the produce each year, but also productivity, raising questions on the long-term survival of apples. The gradual shifting of the crop from lower and mid-elevations to higher altitude is a new phenomenon.

After 2010, a year which saw a bumper apple crop in Himachal Pradesh, sending highest ever 8.92 lakh MT of apples to the markets, the figures have shown a disturbing trend. It was perhaps the lowest one 3.70 lakh MT during this year, which was barely 1.70 crore boxes (20 kg weight). Since 2010, the produce has not crossed five or six MT. Perhaps 1999 was worst with little over one lakh MT.

The state's Additional Chief Secretary (horticulture) RD Dhiman, who holds the charge of Environment, Science and Technology, says, "While the state is really proud of its apples, the trends during past some years are very disturbing. This is only due to climate change and global warming. It's a wake-up call for the Himachal Pradesh apple economy."

Earlier the apples restricted to Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Solan and Sirmaur has now shown tremendous expansion to high altitude belts in Kinnaur like Kalpa, Sangla, Pooh and Reckon Peo. Some of the best varieties of the apples, earlier grown in Kinnaur, has penetrated into the cold deserts of Tabo (10,760 feet) in Lahaul-Spiti -- an area that remains under heavy snow for almost six to seven months.

SK Bhardwaj, head, Department of Environmental Science at UoHF says, "The shifting of apples to higher elevations is mainly due to abnormal climatic factors during the winters and loss of chilling hours which is a basic requirement for apples."

There is a loss of productivity, frequent hailing of crops and lean crop periods, he explains.

For a good crop, the apple trees need a minimum chilling period of 1,600 to 2,000 hours. The temperature should remain below 7 to 9 degree Celsius. Since timely snow has become a rare thing during the winters, especially in the months of November, December and January, chilling requirements are not met. Even the winter rains remain unpredictable. The temperature remains high.

In contrast, the higher elevations of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti provides perfect conditions to the apples in terms of chilling hours, soil and air conditions besides maintaining temperature. Thus, the lower hills and mid-altitude areas are already hit hard. Kotkhai €" Shimla's apple basket €" known for crunchy delicious super-fine apples, is no exception to the threat of climatic changes.

Kotkhai-based leading orchardist, Ram Lal Chauhan, who is a six-time national awardee for best-quality apples and orchard management minces no words.

"If the conditions remain like this, apples will vanish from the orchard. Since we haven't replaced 100 plus-year-old delicious varieties (which needs longer chilling hours) with low-chilling like Gala and Fugi things look terribly bad. If apples vanish the farmers will become debt-ridden," he warns.

Chauhan also questions the state government policy to promote high-density apple plantation under a Rs 1,134 crore World Bank-funded project.

"Growing of apples growing is not 'all size fit' formula that Italy, the US or New Zealand have adopted. Their conditions are very different than Himachal Pradesh, which producing apples without irrigation facility and in the logistically tough terrains. The production here is just seven to eight MT (this year it was 4 MT) against 30 to 40 MT tonnes per hectares. Survival is threatened," he says.

But, not all hopes are lost as Minakshi Chaudhary, a young writer from Shimla says, "Apples are not going to vanish from Himachal Pradesh. We just have to adapt to the climatic changes and start planting those varieties which adjust to temperature variables. Crop diversification and value addition (adding processing and storage facility) are new options to sustain apples. There is a need to motivate orchardists to grow only climate change resilient varieties, replacing early traditional varieties. The apple is the state's identity besides being important to the Himachal Pradesh economy."

Also See: Shimla sees improvement in water availability six months after crisis, but winter may offer reality check

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