Kashmiri apple production has fallen by as much as 40 per cent this year but the prices have shot up after farmers revived their traditional market chains. Growers say they are happy with the rates they are fetching in different mandis of the country.
Unlike last year, they did not rely on the market intervention schemes (MIS) nor did they pay commission to middlemen to sell their produce. Instead they say they used the old and reliable connections to sell at good prices.
''We are getting double - in some cases triple the rates that we got last year,'' beamed Shabir Ahmad Malik, an orchardist at the Shopian fruit mandi.
He was chatting and sipping tea with fellow growers as the mild winter sun rose over rows of thousands of apple cartons placed in the open air stalls. Banners bearing the names of owners or firm, or both, hung over the stalls even as labourers kept on hauling the fruit into a line of trucks that pulled up here intermittently.
“Our production fell by 40 per cent this season. Then a half of this produce got hit by scab but we even then we consider ourselves lucky. The apples are fetching good rates. We are not complaining,” said Gulzar Ahmad Dewan.
Dewan said due to scab - a fungal disease that stunts the growth of apples - and correspondingly lesser production, the demand for the apples soared in the national markets. .
“Last year, our best quality apple box would sell at 500 to 600 rupees, but today we are getting 1100 to 1400 rupees for the same,” he added.
The farmers say they did not opt for any government schemes this year for two reasons - one, the price it quoted was less than prevailing market rates and two, the scheme was launched very late.
“Government was offering us 62 rupees a kg for top-notch apples whereas we were selling it for more than 80 rupees through our contacts,” said another farmer. “No one was keen to sell fruit under the scheme.”
Manzoor Ahmad Mir, deputy director at Horticulture planning and marketing department told News 18 that unlike 2019, when the government procured 10 lakh boxes valuing Rs 70 crores, this year they could buy only 115 boxes till November. “We could pick nothing from the orchards because farmers got very competitive rates in open market. The scheme was launched in late October. It should have been rolled in August,” said Mir.
He clarified farmers opt for schemes when they face distress. Unlike last year, trade has gone off very well. The shortage of apples in market has in fact shot up the demand.
Suhail Ahmad Malik, another grower, agreed, ''In southern India, there is a huge demand for apples. We are told a quality apple box (15kg to 19 kg) sells at between 2000 to 2500 rupees.''
Deputy director Mir said the market intervention schemes are not binding on farmers. “They offer support to farmers in times of distress. The schemes are actually a safety net. Last year there were buyers for the scheme because farmers were not able to push their fruit out of Valley,” he said.
Both Mir and Malik blamed less precipitation, substandard fertilisers and lack of laboratory backup to test them on time for the scab to run riot in the orchards and resulting fall in yield. Malik criticised horticulture department for not sending out its research teams to educate farmers on the ground. “For a farmer to learn new techniques and skills it is important that the scientists and experts touch the ground and give demonstrations.”
Last August, after Centre read down the Article 370, the Valley orchards were caught in a bind, alternating between government restrictions and people's shutdown for many weeks.
Growers could hardly pluck the fruits from their orchards as tension mounted in Kashmir. Worse, a series of militant attacks on truckers, traders and labourers ensured apples could not be shipped out of the Valley.
To avoid losses, growers sold their produce to NAFED or National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED) under MIS of the Agriculture Ministry. That helped the growers to some extent though all the fruit could not go out in time.
Depending upon the yield, the Valley's apple industry is estimated to be worth Rs 8,000 to 10,000 crore. This year the yield dropped from 24,000 metric tonnes to 18,000. About half, 9000 MT has already been pushed to outside markets. Farmers are waiting to send out more produce to tide over the losses suffered last year.
Some have chosen to stock the apples in cold chain storages in Lassipora area of Pulwama. The held back or off season fruit, stocked in refrigeration chambers, is slowly released in the market from March onwards. It fetches decent price to the farmers. According to Majid Wafaie, who runs one of biggest cold storage plants in Kashmir, the occupancy of fruit in these chambers this year is only 60 per cent. "The decrease in apple production is affecting our business."
Meanwhile, in the orchards of Pulwama and Shopian, farming activity is at a peak. The farmers are hoping the yield and rates of apples should pick up in the next season.