Growing Global Apple

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Within less than a year, a state funded scheme has started changing Kashmir periphery. Growers have started understanding the importance of axing more than half a century old apple trees and replacing them with narrow and tall, wire supported varieties that grow fast, better and have impressive yields. But how many years will Kashmir require for replacing 29 lakh kanals of apple orchard given the 2017 pace of 2000 kanals a season, asks Masood Hussain

Javed Ahmad is a happy man. Resident of Soun Chakoo, near Akhal, deep in the rural Pulwama, Ahmad has bachelors in forestry and has taught in the government school for eight years. They are a family of teachers. His father is a head master and his elder brother is also a schoolteacher. But Ahmad resigned from government service in 2015.

“We have been in the business of apple for the third generation now,” Ahmad said. “We handle almost 75 to 100 thousand apple boxes a year and part of it is from our own orchards.”

But 2017 harvest shall remain very special in Ahmad’s tryst with destiny. He harvested his new orchard’s first produce and marketed it successfully. In the family history, it was their quantum jump. They took the apple growing from the traditional systems to high-density and the outstanding experience has been rewarding too.

“This orchard spread over almost seven kanals of land is only 17 months old and we sold 650 boxes of 10 kgs in the very first year,” Ahmad said. “This orchard was fetching us 850 boxes of apple that would sell Rs 800 a box (16 kgs) and in the very first year we sold a box for Rs 1100 to Rs 1300.”

One of the progressive farmers of Rajpora belt, Ahmad said the main mover behind the orchard was their father. “We are always keen to embrace change and improvement,” Ahmad said, in his high-density orchard, separated by a zigzag wall of the tin-sheets from the traditional orchards surrounding it. It is one of the most modern apple plantations in the area. The family has been experimenting with the changes for a very long time. While they uprooted their half a century old orchard and replaced it by the high-density plants, they were experimenting in other traditional orchard by using bud grafting from the high-density varieties.

This orchard was fetching us 850 boxes of apple that would sell Rs 800 a box (16 kgs) and in the very first year we sold a box for Rs 1100 to Rs 1300.

“Experiment did not fail,” Ahmad said. “We got high density fruit but it retained the quality of the rootstock.” He said the only option to get the best quality apple is to replace the old plantations. “The entire crop we had in the high density orchard had a uniform size and quality unlike the traditional fruit we had for decades,” Ahmad said. “Now we are uprooting our other major orchard and planting the high density varieties.” He grows three verities in his new orchard and they have different harvesting time, starting from August and concluding in early October. “This year, I was comfortable because I sold my fruit in late August at a time when nobody was in market,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad’s orchard is significant to Kashmir’s apple history. He became the first grower from Kashmir to market his HD apple that vindicated the blueprint of policymakers that it produces more, better and fast.

The first major orchard that  Root2Fruit, a horticulture company in pre-harvest systems, had set up in Bamdoora, deep south of Kashmir, was axed by a mob in wake of Burhan Wani killing in the same village. The 42-kanals orchard was in the second year of harvest as the crowd was misled by some people to the orchard and most of its 7000 trees were cut down mercilessly.

More than 15 months after, the Bamdoora orchard is still in ruins. But the apple dream stayed afloat. It got a new lease of life when the government announced a scheme linking farmers with the bank and the private sector to create the first series of high-density orchards across Kashmir. The scheme formally approved by the cabinet in September 2016, was finally announced by the middle of February 2017.

Kashmir’s biggest high density apple orchard is spread over 70 kannals in Lissar, South Kashmir. KL Image

The involvement of the private sector literally created a new record. By July 2017, 110 orchards scattered across Kashmir were up. It involved 1000 kanals of land and planting 110 thousand plants, flown from Italy and Netherlands.

“Actually we did 1010 kanals this past season,” Junaid Siddiqui, who heads the pre-harvest operations in Root2Fruit. “Against our target of 1000 kanals, we did 754 kanals in which we did everything: identification of growers, design of the orchards, plant material, trellis and the drip irrigation. In balance 256 kanals, we did the trellis systems only and it belonged to the targets assigned to the horticulture department by the state government.” The company is handholding the growers for two years till the owners are trained. Right now it is planning the start of pruning operations.

“We were so desperate to work within the deadlines of the season that we created history by flying the plants,” said Waseem Nazir, a Kashmiri electrical engineer working in Italy, who handled the Root2Fruit consignments. “Had we opted the traditional courier system and waited for the ship carriage, we would have missed one precious month and that would delay the scheme by a year.” Waseem has quit the job of his Italian employer. Based in Rome, he now works for the Kashmir company. He said he still remembers the words of the courier company executive: “We have never flown plants by air and we do not have any reference as well.”

This is in addition to 40 hectors of high-density orchards that the Department of Horticulture was supposed to create this season. “We have implemented 32 hectors (640 kanals) so far,” Mohammad Yousuf Dar, Deputy Director Horticulture (Centre), said. “Our target for the summer 2018 is 139 hectors.”

The officer said that they are in the process of procuring the plant material. Once it lands in Srinagar, we will retain the import for a year and then distributed to the farming community. It essentially suggests that in 2018, the department may not be able to create any new orchard. The earlier consignment it had flown in late 2016 that was distributed to farmers in March 2017.

Unlike the traditional trees, the high-density plants are narrow and tall and require a support structure of wires and posts. These orchards involves a complex system: the plants is to be accessed from abroad, the key trellis system is to be perfectly crafted to suite a terrain, the drip irrigation system is to be of high quality and for the beginners a hand-holding is fundamental till they get the technical know-how. It was precisely the reason why Root2Fruit bagged the contract. The company has the required expertise is creating the first major orchard and had imported the allied technologies from various countries along with the best practices manual.

Javaid Ahmad: Kashmir apples first new history maker in his HD apple orchard.

Precisely for this reason, the company has already got a fresh 150-hector replantation order in 2018 summer.“We plan to create high density orchards on 3000 kanals of land in 2018,” Siddiqui said. “Right now we have 2050 bookings for almost 300 orchards and new registrations are a daily process.”

Siddiqui has supervised almost all the orchards his company laid this summer. Two orchards were huge: in Lissar that is spread over 70 kanals and another is near University of Kashmir’s South Campus that is 50 kanals. The smallest is in Sofanaman in Shopian, which is only three kanals. “The biggest change that I witnessed is the younger generation is involved directly by the technology and the plan,” Sidiqui said. “Earlier, we used to interact and usually the elders were the audience.”

Of more than 11 lakh farming families, seven lakh – mostly in Kashmir, grow various fruits, including apple. It involves almost 3.5 million people directly into apple growing. Kashmir is India’s major apple producer that sustains an economy of Rs 5000 crore with a yearly produce of 16.88 lakh tones of apple.

These advanced fruit varieties have already replaced the traditional orchards in most of the apple-growing world. Comparatively, it has less maintenance issues, has the capacity of accommodating 111 to 166 plants per kanal – compared to 20 in traditional orchards, reduces gestation from six years to not more than two years and has yield, four to six times more than the traditional orchards. Size and quality of the crop is uniform and that can gradually do away with the questionable manual grading system that has literally butchered brand Kashmir apple.

Supported by a stainless steel trellis system, the rows of HD trees are separated by 10 ft. This is aimed at ensuring the shadow of one row does not impact the fruit of another row. Unlike traditional trees, these tall and wire supported narrow trees do not grow a thick leaf canopy thus permitting sunlight in and reducing the moisture content within the tree foliage. Usually the moisture is key to diseased crop. The gap of 10 ft is a global standard and all the mechanical interventions are utilising this breadth for all interventions and innovations. The trees with the gap of one meter grow up to 14 ft in height strictly using the strong support of the posts tied together by steel wires.

Junaid Siddiqui

In Kashmir, the perfect model HD apple orchard exists in the lawns of the SKUAST. It is the only orchard using the hail-net, a key component of the crop protection used across the world. Interestingly, this component was excluded by the policymakers in the scheme currently under implementation. The scheme has more than 60 per cent subsidy component. It is worth mentioning here, hail net subsidy is part of election manifesto of political parties in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

The government is offering HD plants next season to the farmers impacted by 2014 devastating floods. By debit to the Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation Plan, the government had decided to procure seven lakh HD plants. Root2Fruit was one of the suppliers and has already handed over 90,000 rootstock. Currently these plants are being kept in the sprawling facilities of the Horticulture Department at Zainpora. Expectations are these plants would be distributed to the farmers early 2018.

A senior officer in the Horticulture Department said they have actually procured 91,000 plants only. “These plants, most probably, will be given to farmers free of cost,” Mohammad Yousuf Dar, Deputy Director Horticulture (Centre), said. “Our district officershave identified the potential beneficiaries already.”

Schemes apart, the HD apple is already a sort of quantum jump in Kashmir’s apple-scape. The policymakers have deliberately targeted the high worth and high value individuals who have significant influence in their respective areas and it has created a real buzz in the apple growing peasantry. This follows the locally evolved wisdom that people closer to governance structure usually take the best things home. Though with negative mind-set, this creates a positive impact. Almost everybody who matters in the government, in polices and bureaucracy has a HD apple orchard. Some having the Bulgarian varieties – the high yielding varieties in late eighties, have also replaced their orchards partly.

Mian Sarfaraz Ahmad lives on Wangat peaks in a three-level White House that overlooks most of the Kangan valley. One of the influential residents of the belt, Mian remembers when his family planted the first apple tree in their orchard in 1966. “It was the local Maharaji variety,” Mian said. “Then we were told that this particular variety is hugely in demand in West Bengal so the entire belt started growing it.”

Neither Sarfaraz nor his on Ghulam Naqshband remember their Maharaji apple orchards ever offering them any money. The particular variety is out of fashion for a long time and does not offer any money more than turnips in city markets but one of the poorest belts of Kashmir, Kangan was never told that it is Delicious and other varieties that are making money.

Shaheen Shahdad: The lady farmer from Srinagar who manages 100 kanal orchard in South Kashmir.
KL Image

After the government announced the scheme, Mians’ used the local influence to get the horticulture department put up a HD orchard on almost 10 kanls of land in March. More than two months later, in later May 2017, they got Root2Fruit lay another orchard for them. Separated by a 10-ft link road, the two orchards with the same per kanal costs lay bare the difference in implementation.

“This is how systems work,” Mian Sarfaraz said. “One looks like fighting a mid summer autumn and another seems trying to jump into summer during autumn days.” The state government laid orchard looks like as if poles of rusted iron are fixed to scare crows. The one implemented by the private company has sparking posts and a neat layout.

“It is not merely fixing poles,” Root2Fruit executive Siddiqui said. “We have imported special machinery to fix the poles and the support structure of the trellis system. You can not get the cement and concrete into the apple orchard because it will become a curse for the soil.”

In greenfield projects and replantation schemes, mortality is unavoidable. Generally seven per cent mortality is globally accepted to be the norm. Mortality has been witnessed in the HD plants as well. However, what makes difference is that while the private company involved in the plantations is replacing every single plant that dies, growers like Mians’ said they have not got any replacement for the plants, which did not grow.

“National norm is that in the first year 75 per cent plants must survive which means mortality is permitted to the tune of 25 per cent and in the next year 90 percent of the plants must survive,” a senior officer of the Assistant Director rank  in Horticulture Department said. “But we are witnessing slightly more mortality, around 30 percent which could have many reasons. But this year, we are planning replacing all the plants that have not survived in the 33 hectors that we created this past season.”

“In 2018, we intend to convert at least 20 kanals into HD orchards,” Ghulam Naqshband said. “In the last few months, hundreds of people have visited our orchard and are keen to get into commercial horticulture finally. They are surprised that the plants have started bearing fruit in the very first year.” Mian said that Kangan valley could become the new Shopian in coming days, if the scheme is effectively implemented and the people are granted the support the scheme envisages. “Most of the people have small landholdings and are into some kind of tourist related activity, they barely make two end meet but these orchards can change their fate.”

Mian Sarfaraz Ahmad is doing away with Maharaji variety after 50 years.
KL Image

Almost everybody knows that most of the women in the villages work in fields. But nobody knows a city lady, who is perhaps the most progressive woman farmer of Kashmir. Shaheen Shadad drives to her 100-kanal apple farm in Arihal Pulwama daily. She employees 10-regular employees and has created a huge set up for pre-harvest and post-harvest of a diverse range of crop she crows in the fenced estate.

Intercropping lavender with apple, she grows the precious oil on 40 kanals of land. “I expect a good production of lavender oil from next season because the shrubs are still barely 2 years old,” Shaheen, a basically a resident of Nishat, said. “Even my apple trees are quite young and I am dreaming of having 20,000 boxes in near future.”

Kashmir grows apple on nearly 2.89 million kanals of land. So far, not more than 2000 kanals have witnessed plant replacement.

One sure method of getting closer to her dream produce is the HD trees. She spends part of her time supervising the maintenance of the 10-kanals HD orchard located in the middle of her sprawling estate. “It is just an experiment,” she said. “If it emerges what I am told, I will gradually replace the entire orchard with the HD apple trees.”

Planted in May, crop in October but experts discourage harvest for initial two years.

But the crisis that the quantum jump is facing is that it has not triggered a massive appetite for involvement at the implementation level. Policymakers expected that replacing the aged orchards by new high yielding imported varieties will lead to the rise of hundreds of companies that will acquire technology and go to the fields and implement. Kashmir grows apple on nearly 2.89 million kanals of land. So far, not more than 2000 kanals have witnessed plant replacement.

Officials said there are quite a few players who have some expertise in different operations of the HD apple orchard making. “As soon as the market starts getting the new produce, the appetite will be visible,” one senior official said. “Right now we are busy in creating demonstration orchards in various areas.” Policymakers see the re-plantations emerging as a major peripheral agriculture linked service sector by 2021. It includes nursery owners as well.

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