Making Apple Rot

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As the scab invaded Kashmir’s apple orchards, more than two-thirds of the crop is unworthy of the market. This fruit could easily be diverted to the industry for better use and reduce the loss to some extent but the death of an earlier marketing intervention scheme (MIS) is the real villain, reports Tahir Bhat and Shakir Ashraf

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A local worker packing apples.

A local worker packing apples. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Agriculture is something that makes news when the farmers start committing suicides. At least that is the norm across India. Though around one-third of the contributions to the State Gross Domestic Product (SGDP) come from agriculture, it triggers tensions only when it hits a grave crisis.

Apple is the main player in Kashmir’s economic well-being and not many people know that more than two-thirds of the crop is C-grade, thanks to the scab that hit the orchards at the beginning of this season.

A Season Lost

Imtiyaz Ahmad Dar, 30, an orchardist from Kupwara, has harvested his apple on nearly 30-Kanals of his orchards where multiple varieties grow. Despite routine sprays of pesticide this season, his crop was damaged with fungal and scab infections. Routinely, he would sell not less than a truckload of apples a year. This year, he says he might have merely sold 200 boxes, less than even one-sixth of his routine.

“It is not that the orchards did not bore apples,” Dar said. “The problem is the quality was so low that they cannot be sold.” While talking about this “tragedy”, he cokes frequently: “This is our only source of income. None of us is working for the government. For me, it is a disaster.”

In a season, Dar spends around Rs 4 lakh on pesticides and labour. Then there are costs on a series of post-harvest activities. This harvest, Dar will end in debt.

Sickening Scab

Apple scab is a disease of apple trees caused by a fungus (Venturia inaequalis) producing dark blotches or lesions on the leaves, fruit, and sometimes the young twigs. It helps the fruit decay fast and impacts its appearance. Kashmir apple has historically remained a victim of the scab until scientists helped reduce the impact by suggesting the best solutions. But the diseases make keep their own date.

Those were the days when the growers would get the cash while harvesting the crop. Now they go to the mundis and wait till the buyer comes and chooses the rate.

The dark spots have created a huge mess. Traders who used to ‘export’ 100 truckloads are barely managing 20-25 trucks, this season. The low volumes have impacted the labour market. “When the apple quality is so bad why should people add up to their liabilities,” Waseem Ahmad, who would make a good earning by working as apple packer in the season said. “The rates are better, improved in comparison to last year but there are not many working days.”

Even the traders face a strange situation. They are defaulting. “I had leased my orchard on Rs 3 lakh to a trader, but now when the harvest season is ready, he is not willing to pay even half,” a north Kashmir apple grower said. “’I do not have the crop that I hoped I would have so I will pay for what – scab’, he told me.”

The scab this season has not been to a sub-region. It is everywhere. “In my whole life, I do not think I have ever seen this much of bad fruit,” Ghulam Ahmad, a retired government employee from a Shopian village said. “Right now the priority is that we should be able to recover the basic cost and also that of transportation to the market.” He said the scab travelled like a virus, damaging crops and ruining the entire economy.

Ghulam Mohideen Lone, an apple framer in Kupwara is sitting under the shade of an apple tree. It is a closer look that reveals his pale face. He had the routine of earning a profit of Rs 1.50 lakh a year and this year, he sold a box each for Rs 150.

“I spend lakhs on the fertilizers, labour and on other interventions,” Lone said. “But the current situation is leading me towards bankruptcy.”

Right now, the apple growers have two vital tensions – how to manage the costs required for transportation of the crop to the market and wherefrom the funds will come for pruning. Both are a must. No grower can keep his crop at home for the fear of getting into a loss. There is absolutely no possibility of not pruning the orchards or otherwise, the winter snow will decimate the trees.

“I was expecting a good amount of money from my apples this year as the apple trees were full of apples but the scab ruined my expectations” Lone said.

Rs 8000 Crore Economy

Experts believe Kashmir apples provide livelihoods to around 3.5 million people while contributing around Rs 8000 crore income. Kashmir is producing more than 2 million tons of apples and almost two-thirds of it goes to the non-local markets. The markets, however, were not very supportive last season and farmers fear it might be the repetition of 2019 especially when they have hugely reduced quantity available for sale.

Plant scientists attribute the scab to various factors. Dr Zahoor Ahmed, who teaches at the Sheri-Kashmir University of Science and Technology (SKUAST), Srinagar citied excessive rainfall and Covid-19 lockdown as a major reason for the spurt in scab.

Apple growers checking their broken trees in early snowfall in 2018. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

“Due to heavy rainfall, the pesticides which farmers sprayed got washed away quickly,” Dr Zahoor said. “Also due to lockdown, some farmers found it difficult to buy recommended chemicals.”

Some farmers, Dr Zahoor said, repeated pesticide sprays after rainfall but most of them did not. This led to the rise and spread of scab causing fungus.

“Every year authorities issued spray schedule, which gives farmers full details about the chemicals, quantity, trade name but unfortunately our orchardists do not take it seriously”, Dr Zahoor insisted.

Grower Versions

The growers, however, tell a different story. Some see the scab onslaught as the outcome of the massive snowfall that decimated the orchards last fall. However, most of them see it as permission by the officials to the misbranded chemicals in Kashmir this season.

Experts do not dispute much. They, however, have a piece of advice. “Orchardists should strictly buy the recommended medicines only, rest we do not guarantee,” Dr Zahoor said.

Apple Concentrate

In the twenty-first century, even the C-fruit is not a loss. But there are problems. Most of this fruit goes into the making of apple concentrate and eventually into the juice market. Kashmir has a huge infrastructure for converting the c-category apple into the concentrate but most of this facility is either closed or hugely under-utilised.

“The FIL industries runs a major plant and has an impressive track record in supplying the apple concentrate to some of the major MNCs,” one industry insider, Dr Zainuabidin said. “It has the capacity of crushing 32 tons of apple day. Then we have almost two dozen small units who must have a capacity of the half to one-ton capacity each.”

“Only three days back, a young man who has a fair knowledge of the fruit crushing installed a plant on his own land in Bemina,” Mehmood Ahmad, Director Industries Kashmir said. “He was telling me that he has the capacity to crush 10 tons an hour and the plant can be used for crushing other fruit as well.”

Earlier, apple crushing was the sole activity of a state-owned unit run by the Jammu and Kashmir Horticulture Producing and Marketing Corporation (JKHPMC) in Doabgah Sopore. At one point of time, it was exporting its high-quality concentrate to some of the major chains in Europe. After almost a decade now closure, the unit has been revived. Sources in JKHPMC said they crushed 10 thousand metric tonnes apple last year and sold the 150 metric ton apple concentrates successfully. This year it is being repeated with the same limitations in purchase and capacity of the plant.

However, most of these crushing plants rely on the supply of the raw material for which they either lack enough of working capital or find it non-remunerative to transport it from the Kashmir periphery. It was owing to these tensions that the Jammu and Kashmir government had devised the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) a decade back. Under this scheme, the government was offering a small price to the growers for selling the c-category apple to these units and this cost was shared by the factory owner and the government. The motive of the intervention was to discourage the grower from sending his c-class apple to market so that margins of his better produce will improve. The implementation was indicative of some success.

KL file Image by Bilal Bahadur

However, the vested interests created a racket out of it, at some point of time that disrupted the cycle. It is not in operation for many years. In anticipation of this harvest, the administration was aware of the crisis so they JKHPMC was asked to draft a policy so that it could be implemented. Sources said the corporation did submit a scheme called Price Support Scheme (PSS) that was almost a replica of the erstwhile MIS. After submission, there has not been a word on this so far. Maybe the file re-surfaces when there is not apple around to purchase.

The implementation of the scheme could reduce part of the loss. Unlike apple fruit, the concentrate has a fairly longish shelf life. Some of the units operating in the private sector are purchasing the c-grade apple at rates around Rs 2 to Rs 5, a kilogram. “But they are purchasing small quantity which is not even a fraction of the availability,” one senior official said. “It requires a lot of effort and funds.”

Missing The MIS

The central cabinet early this week also announced the “extension” in the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) that it has introduced last year at the peak of August 5, 2019 crisis. But this MIS is completely different as it involves purchasing fresh apple by NAFED for onward marketing. It makes payments directly to the growers. This year, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha said the Prime Minister has allowed NAFED to utilise government guarantee of Rs 2500 crore for the operation and in case of loses the same would be shared by the central government and Jammu and Kashmir administration equally.

However, the intervention is seen as a public relations exercise. NAFED last year ended up purchasing quite a fraction of produce and ended up disrupting the routine market channels.

Interestingly, the extension to the scheme came at a point while almost half of the crop is already sold. If this budget is diverted to the c-grade apple to fund the appetite of the local facilities, it can make a bigger impact. That can involve larger volumes and may not be loss-making at all.

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