With part of the apple already lost, it is now cherry and strawberry paying the pandemic costs. The two most delicate fruits with lowest shelf life are facing transportation crisis to the markets thus adding the new load to an economy that is hugely under stress since August 2019, reports Saima Bhat
As the cherry trees are blooming with red and juicy fruits, Zahoor Ahmad, 60, is in a fix. His fruit is ready for picking but he has decided to wait a week more till the government and the growers resolve how to transport it. But his restlessness increased after the weather warning about rain and thunder in the last week of May. Since cherry is highly sensitive fruit, the rains and hailstorm can destroy his crop completely.
“It is like a double-edged sword,” Ahmad, a resident of Ganderbal, a second-generation cherry farmer said. “Cherries are highly perishable and have a brief shelf life. Once it is ready, farmers have to start picking and packing it quickly and then send it to its final destination. If the cherries are dry then maybe we can think of storing it in cold stores which increase its life by 10 days otherwise it is useless to keep the stock.”
Every year the cherry season lasts for two months, from mid-May to mid-July.
Amid the Coronavirus lockdown, when the whole world has come to a standstill and no vehicular movement is allowed on highways except for the essentials, the fruit industry has been worst-hit. All fruit complexes, mandis, were closed to stop the pandemic. It was only because of the holy month of Ramadan that Kashmir’s largest fruit complex in Parimpora was allowed to function for two hours. The mandi now remains open till noon.
15K Metric Tonnes
Ahmad and many farmers like him are apprehensive about a huge loss to the 13000 to 15000 metric tons cherry crop with an approximate value of above Rs 150 crores.
Kashmir grows cherry on around 2713 hectares. The areas on the outskirts of Srinagar city including Harwan, Tailbal, Dhara, two areas of district Ganderbal – Laar and Gutli Bagh – some parts of district Baramulla including Tangmarg, Pattan and a few areas surrounding Sopore town are known for major cherry production. This fruit is grown in parts of Shopian and Tral as well.
Experts estimate a total of 10 lakh families are directly and indirectly involved with this sector.
The cherry production in Kashmir, as per the experts, was limited to some native varieties only till the 1930s. Some of them used to grow in the wild like Vushkant, which is less known locally but well known in the field of herbal medicine.
“It is wild and underutilized,” Tassaduq Mueen, an agriculture officer said. “It is mostly found in the forests behind Kokernag and at Dachigam in Srinagar. It is a bit sour in taste but has high medicinal values”.
But somewhere around the 1930s, a friend of Maharaja Hari Singh, known as Afandi, an Afghanistan citizen who settled and recently died in Kashmir, introduced new French varieties of cherries in Kashmir including double, and Mishri. Double cherry variety actually means Napoleon.
Over the years, more foreign varieties were added. In 1989, the department of horticulture got new varieties and introduced them through their three advanced centres in Srinagar, Shopian and Ramban districts.
“Amongst them, three varieties became very prominent including Stella, Van and Sum Bust because of their size and good market. We believe these varieties are now replacing the old French varieties,” said Moeen.
Some other varieties are Makhmali, Black and Awal Number. The cherry yield is supposed to be good only when the climate is favourable.
One Third Export
Over the years the production of the cherry has increased from 8,282 metric tons in 2016-17, 11280 metric tons in 2017-18 to 11789 metric tons in 2018-19. Out of this, annually around 3,500 to 4,000 metric tons of cherry was sent to other states, mostly Mumbai, which is a huge market for Kashmir cherries.
The Kashmiri cherry crop means 13000 to 15000 metric tons of produce every year. “Out of this produce, 3000 to 5000 metric tons is of Double variety, 90 per cent of the Double Cherry goes for canning. Then Makhmali and Mishri types mostly go to the mandis of Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkatta, Ahmadabad, Bengaluru and Hyderabad,” said Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the president of Parimpora fruit complex association.
“We used to send cherry to these places mostly through the air and a part of it through trains and refrigerator vans.”
Bashir said the lockdown had reduced their options. The airport authorities have told us they don’t have direct flights for Mumbai due to the lockdown. Every day, they just fly two or three flights to Delhi and the problem is when these flights reach Delhi airport, the flights bound for other states leave before that,” he said, “We are left with Delhi and Punjab options but that can’t fetch us a good price, not even 10 per cent of what we used to get.”
Bashir’s Association has held a number of meetings with the horticulture department. The officials have promised them that they will be facilitated to send their produce through trains to desired markets.
“They told us they have requested Northern Railways to help transport Kashmiri cherries from Amritsar. And from June 1, the Northern Railways will transport 4 to 6 metric tons of cherries daily from Amritsar to Delhi and Mumbai. We had requested them to transport the fruits from Jammu but that did not materialize.”
But Bashir said it cannot help farmers as the Srinagar to Jammu highway mostly remains shut for weeks together. “Cherry cannot wait for weeks. In cold storages it can be stored for a maximum of 20 days,” he said.
Not Mumbai Now
The director horticulture of planning and marketing Jammu and Kashmir Manzoor Ahmad Mir said the department was aware of the problems being confronted by the fruit growers.
“Our department is a facilitator. We helped them in meeting the divisional commissioner, civil administration, airport authorities and railways. They have given their nod that they will be transporting the Kashmir fruit on priority. The department has already suggested to the government to prioritize movement of trucks carrying cherry on the National Srinagar-Jammu Highway,” Mir said. “This year we may not be able to supply cherry to Ahmadabad and Mumbai due to the fact that these places are badly hit by Coronavirus. However, we have written to the government suggesting that we will target Delhi and north Indian market.”
Mir is also of the opinion that the consumer demand has gone down drastically, perhaps because of the fall in purchasing capacity. “This is pandemic and the effect can be seen everywhere,” he said.
Canning is an option for the farmers, which could have helped them to reduce the losses but the insiders said when the hotels are closed and there is no demand for bakery they cannot go for canning. In Kashmir alone, there are around 22 canning factories. Other than local, this cherry used to go to Delhi, Allahabad, Punjab canning factories as well.
Farooq Ahmad Rather, the owner of Dara Agro Products, a canning factory, is a cherry grower as well. A resident of Dara Harwan, Rather owns around 50 kanals orchard in which he has mostly cherry trees. “There are some places where the orchardists have cherry trees alone in their orchards and such families will be hit hard,” Rather said.
Sensing the loss, Rather was ready to start his canning factory but is apprehensive of many problems. “My labourers are from my locality and some are from outside as well. Even if Divisional Commissioner has given permission to start our factories but it won’t be possible for labourers to reach here as the highways are closed,” he said. “And what if they are asked to go for the necessary quarantine of 14 days? The time they will come out of quarantine, the cherry season will already be over”.
His other apprehension is if any worker turns positive, as per rules the factory will be sealed as happened last time at Rangret. “Who will save us then,” lamented Rather whose facility has the capacity to can around 50 tons of cherry.
But his colleague Mohammad Sayeed, the owner of Garden Fresh, the biggest canning factory located at Rangret industrial estates, said it is for the first time that his factory is closed.
Started by his father from Rajbagh area with name Snow Peak, Sayeed said the factory was later shifted to Rangret industrial estates where they got a new name for it. His is one of the four big factories that used to do most of the cherry canning.
“Every year from June till the end of July my factory used to do canning of around 150 lakh kgs in minimum 20 to 25 days. Our working days depended upon the crop. If there was a bumper crop of double variety then it could extend up to 40 days,” Sayeed said.
Recalling the good old days, Sayeed said he had around 100 workers that included locals and a few from Rajouri district, who used to work in double shifts during cherry season, from 6 am till 12 midnight. “Since the fruit is highly perishable, we could only store it in cold stores for maximum 15 days, if we wanted to do extra work. Only dry cherry can be stored in cold stores. The wet cherry will rot in just 7 days,” he said.
But due to the present lockdown, even if the government is helping the canning factories to start their work but Sayeed has his worries. “We don’t have any demand from the market and it is not an essential item that we can start working now and then expect the market in future. We used to sell our stock till May and the new product used to come in July. This year in May we still have stock of last year lying with us. Trust me the stock I sold out in February is also lying with me because we couldn’t transport it in March when lockdown started.”
Markets across India, Sayeed said, are dependant on demand and supply chain. He estimates the loss to canning factories in Kashmir at Rs 100 crore. Other than local, a few canning companies from Punjab, Allahabad and other states also used to come to Kashmir to procure cherry directly but this year they too have not come, he said.
Sayeed is himself stuck in Mumbai due to the lockdown. When asked about the market, he said, “There is a small level activity in local mandi. The essential items like vegetable come straight from the growers and are sold by vendors. There is no big activity. It is difficult to get market for fruits at places like Mumbai which are highly hit by the Coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, the president of Parimpora Fruit mandi said he had informed the government to start thinking about the ways to sell the fruits. “As the lockdown is still going on I believe the government should have procured the fruit itself and then sold themselves so that the farmers could have been provided with minimum support to survive.”
But locals have a different opinion. “We stand with the fruit growers. When the rates should have gone down due to no demand from outside, one kg of the cherry box is still sold out at Rs 100. They don’t actually grow the fruits for the local population. If they had brought rates down a bit, everybody could afford and they (farmers) too would have survived with the help of the local market. But they are discouraging local consumption,” said Farooq Ahmad, a common citizen.
Cherry is not the only fruit that is facing an uncertain future. Earlier, another delicate fruit, the strawberry with a production of around 400 metric tons too faced crisis initially even if this fruit is sold in local market only.
In the ‘strawberry village’ of Ghosoo, on the outskirts of Srinagar, which has the largest land of around 65 kanals under cultivation of this fruit, had the highest activity of people in the last fortnight. This highly perishable crop has a shelf life of just one or two days.
Sakib, 26, is happy that he could sell off his whole stock of strawberries in time even if he had to endure a loss of 30 per cent. Last year he managed to sell 2.5 kgs at Rs 350 and this year it fetched him just Rs 240.
When the picking of strawberries began in mid-April, there was no vehicular movement on roads. “We were very apprehensive if we could manage to sell our stocks. But then the department of horticulture managed to give us passes for the movement so that we could sell the stock and it worked,” Sakib said. Otherwise, they used to sell their stock at Parimpora Fruit Mandi, from where it used to go to all districts of Kashmir and Jammu as well.
“Strawberries were mostly sold at various tourist destinations and in Srinagar district but due to the Covid lockdown the movement of people has ceased,” Abdul Rehman, another farmer said, “After permission, we managed to sell it ourselves. It was the holy month of Ramadan when people consume fruits in good quantity.”
Started by his grandfather some eight years ago, Sakib said they had paddy fields and each kanal of land would give them a profit of Rs 10,000. “But when we saw our adjoining areas gaining good profit from strawberries, my grandfather also decided to grow the fruit. Now each kanal gives us a profit of Rs 90,000.”
Growing strawberries is labour intensive but the farmers like Sakib said they want “quick returns at less investments.” Like him, many of his neighbours have shifted from vegetable farming to strawberry farming in Ghosoo because it gives them better profit.
The cultivation of strawberry in Kashmir, the experts believe, is native and wild. “Initially it was seen on the high terrains of Tangmarg by the English people who used to come to Gulmarg and Tangmarg. They then started it for commercial purposes after introducing different varieties,” Tassaduq Mueen said, “In strawberries again Afandi got some new varieties for his friend Maharaja Hari Singh in 1920 to 1930s. Most of his gardeners were from Harwan and Nishat belt so it got spread to those areas as well.”
In 1989 the department of horticulture introduced new varieties from Italy in certain belts of Harwan, Brien and Tangmarg. But then in 2006-07 the area of Ghosoo, where only apple trees were found in orchards, the people requested the horticulture department to help them grow it in their orchards. Initially, it was grown in 5 to 6 kanals of land. “When they saw the huge profit the cultivation was expanded to 150 kanals and then to 400 and 800 kanals,” said Mueen.
Recently Mueen said, Dr Joshna Singh, the daughter of Dr Karan Singh, has also introduced strawberries in around 50 kanals of her almond garden near Chashmashahi.
The strawberries are now grown on 50 hectares of land around Kashmir, most of which comprises of short day variety. Mueen said there are two more varieties: long day and day-neutral, which can be cultivated throughout the year under controlled temperatures. For this cash crop, canning is also possible. “It is happening at very minimal levels at cottage setups. But there is a need of doing it at a larger level,” Moeen said.