This year’s plentiful produce has given a fresh lease of life to orchardists.
Abdul Rahman Dar neatly places the cherry harvest inside boxes as the June sun swelters overhead at his orchard in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district.
It has been an abundant produce and market conditions appear positive as waves of COVID19 infections have gradually eased after causing widespread economic and supply disruptions during the last two years.
“This year we have a bumper crop and I am hopeful we will do better business than previous years,” Dar, 56, said as he finished his lunch and quickly went back to the packaging of cherries. Dar’s orchard is spread over several acres and is filled with sparking red fruit.
Ganderbal, a district that is a gateway to Ladakh region, is among few areas which produce large quantities of cherry – others being Tangmarg in Baramulla district in north Kashmir and Srinagar, Kashmir’s urban heartland.
The annual production of the fruit is around 12,000 metric tonnes which makes Jammu and Kashmir the largest cherry producer of India.
Kashmir region produces eight varieties of cherries: Makhmali, Siya, Mishri, Jaddi, Italy, Dabal, Vishkan and Stela. Four among the eight varieties -Mishri, Jaddi, Makhmali and Dabal – have good demand in the market while Mishri is considered sweeter than other varieties.
The Mishri variety, also known for its health benefits, was exported to Dubai last year and is also a dominant crop in Dar’s orchard.
Dar said farmers had incurred heavy losses during last two years, when a worldwide lockdown in place to contain the spread of COVID19 almost crashed the economy and supply networks. “All the markets within and outside Kashmir were shut, it was a very bad situation,” Dar said.
With the pandemic’s worst now appearing to be over and no new resurgence of the infection happening for last several months now, the supply chain and hopes of farmers, like Dar, have been restored.
Many in Ganderbal harvested cherries from as early as May as temperatures rose to record levels but Dar chose to wait till last week of June – which is considered to be the perfect time for the harvest of the sweet fruit. “This year a lot of people including my neighbours started harvesting much earlier than usual, but my crop was not ready at that time,” he said.
“Given the hot and humid conditions, the farmers could not have waited more, but then there was worry of rain and hailstorm which damages the crop, which became another reason for farmers to harvest the crop before time,” Dar explained.
The cherry cultivation has been revolutionized, and also made lucrative, in recent years by the inclusion of high-yielding varieties. According to an official, the imported varieties of cherry have brought about “a revolution” in this sector as growers now feel less worried about the damage caused by rain or hailstorm, which is extensive in case of traditional varieties .
He said that about half a dozen cherry varieties of cherries were imported into Kashmir from different countries of the world. “These are mostly imported from Italy and not only do they fetch more returns for the growers but are also less vulnerable to rain.”
Dar, the grower, however, says that none of the imported brands can compete with the traditional Mishri variety in terms of colour, crunch, and nutritional value but quickly concedes that this variety often becomes the worst victim of rain.
In the southern parts of Kashmir valley, where apple remains the primary fruit and horticulture sector has led to upward economic mobility of the population, cherry farming is also making an impact this year.
Sayar Ahmad Lone, a young orchardist from Shopian district, said the crop this year has been a blessing.
Lone, 27, said he has earned double than what he earned last year from the cherry crop. “I own around 100 trees and all of them produced cherries in large quantities, also the demand was huge, so unlike past years, this year was a huge bonus,” he said.
There are also some other factors that are contributing to profits for cherry farmers. The horticulture official laid emphasis on cherry not being imported to India.
“Cherry is something that can’t be imported from places like Iran, hence there is very less competition for the crop from the valley,” the official said, referring to import of Iranian apples to India which had upset the Kashmiri apple industry and was vehemently opposed by the valley’s fruit growers.
Lone said the cherry has far more advantages as compared to apple, “The biggest advantage is that there’s no competition, very few people in Kashmir are into this business,” he said.
The others, he said, were that there’s not much maintenance needed. “With apples one needs to be very careful, as they need fertilizers etc for disease to be kept at bay. Whereas with cherry that is not the case,” he said.
While this year’s produce has made the growers happy, some have grudges with the government for not doing enough.
Ghulam Nabi Dar, 65, said that the government should introduce a pro-farmer scheme on the lines of market intervention scheme launched during the tenure of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. He said that the B-grade and C-grade crop is of no use and the farmers run into losses worth millions.
According to Tariq Rasool Rather, an Associate Professor of Plant Pathology at SKUAST-K, there is around 17 percent contribution from agriculture and allied sectors and 10 percent of that alone comes from apples.
“Around seven lac families are engaged with horticulture activities, which means around 35 lac of our people are directly and indirectly dependent on Horticulture,” he said.
He said the business of protection of apples from diseases and pests is alone worth Rs 500 crore.
Rather added that government agencies must help growers in bringing more High Density Planting (HDP) orchards at cheaper rates. “As of now planting material is mainly being imported from Europe which is expensive and carries bio-security risks also. Government needs to involve private players for developing quality plant material of all crops here in the valley at affordable rates for all growers,” he explained.
He further said that the government needs to encourage growers to mechanise, at least, the new HDP orchard system and should subsidise the latest spraying and other machinery. “It is also required that government agencies need to guide the grower on a real time basis throughout the season using different platforms,” Rather said.