Ladakh to bring wild berries home

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Researchers in Ladakh are experimenting with organised cultivation of  Seabuckthorn, the wild bush famed for products like Seabuckthorn tea, Leh Berry Juice and herbal supplements and cosmetics. Zubair A Dar reports.

Farmers in Ladakh may soon start cultivating seabuckthorn bushes in their fields. The wild growing bush yields a berry that is at the backbone of a major food processing industry in the region.
The move is aimed at helping the industry grow exponentially by increasing yield that has till now been limited by ability of farmers to collect fruit from wild growing bushes and some marketing factors.
In Ladakh, seabuckthorn pulp production in 2007 had reached 200 metric tonnes while the fruit collection was around 235 metric tonnes. In 2008, the pulp production nosedived to 60 metric tonnes because of the lack of buyers. For the 2009 yield, advertisements have now been floated for securing buyers for the fruit pulp at national and international level.
The Seabuckthorn bush that grows wild across arid Ladakh is gaining fame for products like Seabuckthorn tea, cosmetics and herbal supplements apart from the famous Leh Berry Juice.
The challenge, however, is to standardize orchard management practices where the bush will be grown by farmers and adopt modern breeding approaches for crop improvement of Seabuckthorn to harness its food and medicinal properties.
Researchers at the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) at Leh have been experimenting with the organised cultivation of Seabuckthorn bush for the past three years and have lately been successful in conserving the germplasm of this highly diverse plant.
“The process took three years. It included collecting best plants from different varieties growing across Ladakh and planting them in orchards at the institute,” says Tsering Stobdan, 34, a researcher associated with the process since 2006. “Farmers can now take these plants and cultivate them in the fields.”
Experts say that per hectare yield of seabuckthorn can earn a farmer up to five lakh rupees a year if post harvest management and value addition techniques are improved.
The move will help in increasing the collection of fruit that has been restricted to five percent of the total wild production. An increase in collection will mean that the scale of processing grows bigger and so more employment and more revenues are generated by this fruit processing sector.
“Satellite images have shown that the bush grows on 11,500 hectares in Ladakh,” says Stobdan. “Of this only five percent is collected and processed. So our aim is to increase collection by organised cultivation and better collection methods.”
DIHAR, therefore, is also working on scientific method of harvesting. While the research institute stresses farmers to prefer early morning collection of the fruit, a few mechanised methods are in the process of testing.
Researchers at DIHAR invented a Seabuckthorn harvester that runs on electricity. As villages across Ladakh lack sufficient electricity supply, it became a limiting factor.
“We are now working on a new harvester that would not require electricity and can instead be run by manual paddling,” says Stobdan. “For the time being, we stress farmers to collect fruit early in the morning when the fruit can easily detach from the branch and thus the damage to the plant is limited.”
Collectors at present use beat-the-bush method of Seabuckthorn berry collection which damages the branches as well as berries. Early morning, when the temperature is less, the damage is limited as milder beating of branches detaches fruit from it.  
To process this five percent collection, at least 11 processing units operate across Leh district to extract pulp from the fruit. The pulp is exported while the residue is used in preparing other by-products.  
“Seabuckthorn is a new thing for India. So establishing a market is taking some time,” says Stobdan. “Berry pulp made locally is exported so the impact in local market is less.”
Formerly known as the Field Research Laboratory, DIHAR is also working on developing other by-products of the Seabuckthorn fruit. After the extraction of pulp from the fruit, the residue is used in making cosmetics like shampoos, body oils and face creams. The leaves of the plant are processed to manufacture seabuckthorn tea.
The laboratory had developed and patented the process for preparation of nutritive beverage from seabuckthorn fruits which has been commercialized by private vendors.
Till 2006, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council had allowed only one company in Ladakh to produce the seabuckthorn pulp. The company was formed through equity participation from the Small Farmers’ Agricultural Consortium and the National Agricultural Federation (Nafed), a government body.
But the commercial level production rights have now been extended to seven companies. “These include five major companies like Compact International besides two local companies,” says Stobdan. “Leh nutrition project, an NGO, also has this patent.”
The process for preparation of other food products such as jam, pickle, puree, blended/spiced beverages and wine have also been developed and are in the process of being patented and commercialized.
“Two companies have been transferred the technology to produce tea for export to five countries,” says Stobdan.
The plant
Seabuckthorn is a thorny, dioecious bush growing wild in the cold and dry regions of Indian Himalayas mainly in Ladakh (J&K), Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur (HP), Kumaon-Garhwal (Uttranchal) and Sikkim/Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East region. The ripe fruits of Seabuckthorn are a rich source of vitamins (A, B, C, and K&E) with antioxidant and anti stress properties. The plant has medicinal and fodder value besides food and cosmetics properties.
Keeping in view its properties, DIHAR undertook several research and development projects on seabuckthorn from 1992 to promote cultivation and utilization of seabuckthorn for human welfare. Extensive explorations have been conducted to identify the promising genetic diversity in the crop in the region which has considerable variation in the physicochemical properties of the fruits. Three promising selections have been made from the natural population and Field genmaile banks have been established to conserve this natural diversity.
In order to popularize scientific cultivation of this valuable plant, propagation through seeds, stem cuttings (using PBRs) and suckers, has been standardized. Efforts are also in progress to develop the protocols for in vitro propagation of Seabuckthorn. Model Seabuckthorn orchards have been established using different planting systems/distances and by maintaining proper male:female plant ratio.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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