Selfless Grower

Right now when apple is facing crippling market adversity, the desperate grower is making every effort to keep the wheel of the Kashmir economy moving. Masood Hussain details how at immense losses, the peripheral peasantry is ensuring that every stakeholder has his due even though he will end up losing almost everything this harvest

Not many people know, Javed Ahmad, who heads the Fruit Mandi at Pulwama said, that an apple grower’s income starts only after his box sells at more than Rs 450. This amount equals the costs he incurs on growing the 16-kg fruit box, managing its harvest, packaging it and paying the freight to make it reach the market. “This cost is the same for all grades A, B and C. So, if a box sells less than this amount, it is a net loss to the grower.” He said he is aware of cases in which the growers paid part of the costs from his savings or debt-funded it just to ensure the fruit reaches the consumer.”

Weather and road conditions apart, the adversity of market conditions started showing up in early September this year. It is the season when the mainland traders swarm to Kashmir periphery for purchasing ghirana, the apple fall that made eccentric scientist, Isaac Newton curious enough to give physics the law of gravity. Ahead of the harvest, almost five per cent of the fruit fails to withstand gravity and falls on its own. In most of cases, these naturally fallen apples do have a market. They do not end up injured – courtesy of moist grassy ground. These apples are sold in markets of Srinagar, Rajouri, and Poonch, most of UP, Bihar, Punjab, and other neighbouring states.

“Last year, a crate of apples would be purchased by the ghirana traders at Rs 150,” Shabir Ahmad, an apple grower, said. Though the crate usually carries 17 kg, they would take it heavy enough with 21 kg. “This year, they hardly purchased it at Rs 60.”

Once they make the purchase, they grade it and sell it to their respective markets at A, B and C classes. Once the ghirana season is over, they get into harvesting the C-grade apple. “Even this hardly crossed Rs 100, a crate this year.” So a lot of people, instead of attempting to sell this part of the produce, either dumped it within the orchards or fed it to the cattle. “This season,” said Waseem Ahmad, who owns orchards and a few jersey cows, “the cow would almost feed on apple, consuming as many as three crates a day.” He believed that feeding cows the apple made a better economic sense in comparison to attempting to sell it with no returns. But not everybody has cows now.

The freefall in rates is visible across all fruit markets across India. “It sells in the range of Rs 350 to Rs 570 across Kashmir markets and any addition that it fetches in Delhi or elsewhere is just managing part of the freight,” Mohammad Amin Mir, who heads the mega-mandi at Shopian. “It is one of the worst years and the economy is in shambles.”

Generating Hope

However, what is remarkable is that apple growers, despite being desperate, have not given up. From no returns to thin margins, the growers have not let the market down. The entire economic ecosystem linked to apple is undisturbed and every sub-sector is earning. If there will be a loser, it will be the grower alone.

Interestingly, this year was not only the bumper-crop year but a scab-free year too. More than two-thirds of the produce is A and B-category fruit. Normal market conditions would fetch Kashmir almost Rs 20,000 crore for this year’s crop, industry insiders suggest.

“Our mandi turnover last year was Rs 3500 crore,” Mohammad Amin, who heads the Shopian satellite market, said. “This year, we are sure, to cross Rs 5000 crore, not because of rates but because of volume.” His mandi sells two lakh boxes a day and the sale is not even halfway through. “We will work till the middle of December to sell the fruit.”

Misconceptions

The Kashmir apple economy is fighting many misconceptions. Most people believe that apple is a rural economy. Nobody knows that barring producing apples, almost everything linked to the fruit is urban. Modern pre-harvest and post-harvest systems are completely urban phenomena.

A general consumer perception is that the apple fruit grows like apricots and walnuts – plant a tree in the backyard and harvest the yield in October. Apple growing is a complicated mess. It is as difficult as childbirth. It is not labour-intensive alone; it is a very costly affair. There are countless costs within the orchards and outside it. Understanding its eco-system is a bitter story and a challenging one.

Prune It

Like the egg-and-hen debate, it depends on what comes first. For some Kataie, the pruning of apple trees is the last pre-winter activity and many think, it marks the beginning of the new season. Whatever it is, most of the apple growers would remain busy in pruning the trees for the next three fortnights. Pruning is a high skill. It is the process of understanding which branches need to be cut and why. Pruning cuts are key to plant health but must be made in such a way that the tree is able to close its wound and avoid getting infected, mostly by rot.

Normally, the growers would harvest the apple, sell it and then get back to orchards later in November when the tree was defoliated and start pruning. Traditionally, that was ideal because the pruning would coincide with the plant getting into winter dormancy. However, climate change has dictated a new regime. For the last three years, snowfall starts in early November. It damages the fruit and the plant. In order to hedge the risk, growers get into early pruning.

Given the weather conditions, pruning is the most challenging job. It is labour intensive and a high-skilled pruner can command a daily wage of up to Rs 1200. “In a day, one can manage three to four trees but if they are older, even one is a challenge,” Gulzar Ahmad, a master pruner said. “Grading of fruit, pruning of trees and packing it are the major activities in apple growing, which not everybody can be engaged in.”

Slow Tilling

It is early sunshine in late February that set the plants – also the bears – back to life from hibernation. Ideally, it would happen in late March but sunny winters have advanced it. This is the time when the trees require some nourishment to help leaves come out faster and start photosynthesis.

The conventional wisdom is that growers turn the soil and till it in a small circle around the roots and put some fertilizers. It is called Goudie in Kashmiri. In certain cases, manures are also being used. This is hard labour but with a lot of leisure, however.

Spraying

Spraying oils, pesticides and, in certain cases, nutrients is a taxing exercise. The number of sprays is anywhere between seven to 10 and it all depends on weather conditions. This activity has given a huge sub-sector to retail and more than a dozen manufacturers are in the race to get the best of it. Kashmir’s top pesticide manufacturer said it is worth Rs 600 crore a year.

Apple growers spend almost half a year in spraying pesticides in their orchards.

The first spray is when the tree is still in dormancy. Essentially diluted horticulture oil, this spray is supposed to kill the winter infections – mite eggs or the scale or the woolly apple aphids and offer the tree some kind of protection from the spring pests. Not many people know that a set of insects use the same tree and get into hibernation with it. They also wake up with the tree after surviving a chain of winter chill units – a key requirement in apple trees. Some even use copper or lime sulphur in case they have a particular bacterial disease in their orchards.

The second spray, which most people avoid, is risky because the delicate flower can get adversely impacted. Generally, however, growers use a light spray during full bloom or soon after the petal fall to help the ‘fruit’ stay strong and to prevent certain insects to breed at the root of the potential fruit.

With this starts an “unending” cycle of sprays, some aimed at managing scabs, others fungi, and other sets of issues. Some sprays are essential to prevent the leaf fall that impacts the growth and colour of the fruit. When it is ripening, some have started spraying nutrients to help trees get the best of the fruit.

Off late, mechanisation has helped growers better. The erstwhile foot-peddled sprayer is no more in use. Now the jet sprayers with motors are pumping in gallons of diluted pesticides on an hourly basis. With the high density getting popular, drones will soon be inducted to create the pesticide fog that the imported breeds require.

Harvesting

The most difficult and challenging activity in apple growing, that harvesting is hugely labour-intensive. Since the entire crop is ready for harvest at the same time, the season usually witnesses massive demand for labour and the charges go up, even to the extent of Rs 1200, a day. This is where the non-native workforce addresses the gulf.

Unlike high-density plantations, the traditional orchards with big trees make apple plucking a difficult task. Harvesting marks the season in which the growers have to spend a fortune managing lot of material and mostly at asking prices.

Once the apple picking is over, it is quickly moved to spots where the rest of the process takes place. Earlier, this was a manual process but mechanisation has reduced the burden. By an average, every apple box would require an investment of Rs 10 to reach a safe place – usually a shed or a courtyard.

Grading

It is the time when the grower makes a decision whether he should pack his crop and send it to the market or store it in a Cold Atmosphere Storage centre. In case the harvest goes to the stores, mechanisation takes over. But, if he decides to send it quickly to the market – as is the case in almost 80 per cent of the produce, he must grade his apple. The problem with the traditional apple, unlike the high density, is that it is of varying sizes. By average three sizes are normal. It is a tedious process of separating the grades and taking out the one that is low grade in shape, size and colour. The grader must cut the stack without injuring the fruit.

Packaging

Right from the harvest, the apple requires a chain of containers. It starts with the wicker or plastic basket with which it is collected on the trees. It is then transferred into plastic crates – manufactured at around Rs 80, sells and sold at Rs 180 to 200, a piece.

Post-grading now requires packaging that takes it to the market and eventually to consumers. Traditionally Kashmir used wooden boxes. Usually made of poplar trees, Kashmir would require anywhere between 13 and 16 crore boxes a year. The box-making would involve hundreds of band sawmills in south Kashmir, which would hire thousands of carpenters for the job.

The apple harvest and grading in progress. KL Image

Though still in use, the massive requirement for poplar boxes gave rise to the cardboard box sector. Now the situation is that almost sixty per cent of the apple is packaged in cardboard boxes. In the last few years, cardboard box making has emerged as a huge industry in Kashmir and Jammu, which is estimated to be around Rs 450 crore. Despite this, the wood-box sector still survives and is estimated to be around Rs 540 crore.

“The rates are increasing every year,” Shabir Ahmad, who purchases both kinds of packing for his crop, said. “This year the maximum rate for cardboard box was Rs 53 (without trays) and in the case of wood, the rate varied from Rs 90 to Rs 130.” The cardboard box can hold 15 kg and the wooden one up to 18 kg.

The packers are high skilled people, who charge almost Rs 800 to Rs 1000, a day, depending on the speed with which he packs a box. The maximum output of a packer is 30 boxes a working day.

To ensure that the packing is pleasing and the fruit survives injury, he uses two kinds of packaging material within the box. The layers are separated from one another by a mix of used newspapers and paddy straw. Thick sheets of newsprint separate one apple from another and one line from another in a row. Earlier, the growers would have the paddy straw at home. After the mass conversion of paddy fields into orchards, especially in South Kashmir, now the paddy straw is being sourced from Budgam and Bandipore, and in certain cases from plains of north Kashmir as well. A gaseh gead of straw comprising six gaseh lou, costs Rs 30. A gead is enough for six boxes. Off late, however, the non-native labour employed in the paddy harvesting has changed the size and shape of the gaseh lou!

The scrapped newspapers that go into apple packaging right now sell at 50 per kilogram, which is barely Rs 27 less than the factory-ready newsprint that newspapers use in Srinagar!

The inner packaging is the same in cardboard and wooden boxes. However, wooden boxes require iron nailing, unlike cardboard in which plastic tape is used.

Transport

The fruit is ready for transfer to the market. The grower has to make a decision. He has two options. One, to take the crop to the nearest mandi, which would require him to spend almost Rs 50 per box. There, the buyer takes care of it. Second, if he decides to sell the crop in non-local markets personally, he must hire a truck and pay for the freight. Owing to market conditions including fuel costs and inflation, the freight, this year, was the highest ever.

Cardboard and wooden packaging goes hand in hand in apple packaging. KL Image: Shuaib Wani

“The freight is decided by the desperation that the transport sector creates in Kashmir,” Farooq Ahmad Rather, a grower in a Shopian village said. “Almost a fortnight back, we paid Rs 140 per box up to Azadpur in Delhi and more than 200 to Ahmadabad,” Rather said. “Right now, it costs Rs 100 to reach a box to Delhi because the availability of truckers has improved.” Kashmir apple goes to all fruit markets across India and the distance decides the freight. It is hugely expensive for Kerala and West Bengal border, wherefrom it crosses into Bangladesh.

Mohammad Amin, however, said the freight is up in a fortnight. Earlier we paid Rs 70 up to Delhi and now it is Rs 110. To the South, it has reached Rs 230 a box and to Ahmadabad, it is Rs 125. It is Rs 150 up to UP.

In a season, Kashmir requires almost 130 to 150 thousand trawler loads to send its produce to outside markets. By all means, the transport sector earnings from apple are about Rs 2000 to Rs 2500 crore a season.

Transportation of fruit is linked to the health of a sick highway that connects Kashmir with the rest of the world. It is usually bleeding between Banihal and Ramban. Sometimes, even this season, it requires a serious effort from stakeholders to get the apple trucks moving out. All losses that happen to the fruit during transportation are to be borne by the grower. There is no insurance scheme, a service without which not a single apple moves out of the orchard in the West.

The Sale

Kashmir apple has remained a buyer’s product throughout unlike all other fruits. Not even a single box is sold directly by the seller. Never ever has the seller fixed the price of his produce. It always has a third party in between. It is as true with Delhi and other mandis as it is with Sopore and Shopian. Once the crop enters a market, a new meter is put on.

Every mandi takes its pound of flesh. In markets outside Kashmir, the charges are a basket with a huge diversity. In Jaipur, for instance, the commission agents will weigh the box and take one kilogram from every box as their share. He will add no other charge other than unloading from the truck to the bill. In Delhi, the agent was earlier charging a lot of cuts but has now reduced the squeeze to two rates – 12-14 per cent commission on a sale for clients who had taken money in advance and a 6-8 per cent cut on sale for apple suppliers who did not avail this facility.

In order to prevent the exploitation of the grower at the hands of the commission agents, the government invested in local mandis. The situation, however, remained more or less unchanged. In fact, it added to the squeeze as banks came in between the grower and the local agent.

“Our commission depends on with whom we deal. I charge only six per cent as commission from the sale of growers whom I know but the market rate goes up to even 13 per cent,” one trader from Shopian mandi told this reporter on the condition of anonymity. “Besides, we charge Rs 4 as unloading per box and Rs 2 per box as association charges.”

Default

In urban Kashmir, a bounced cheque moves to the front page and the courtroom. In peripheral Kashmir, it is just a piece of paper. An average of 15 to 20 per cent of the promised transactions get into default. “It is normal,” Abdul Rashid said. “The trader sells the produce and drives to the grower’s home and begs for mercy with the plea that he booked too much of losses.” “The liability remains but is rarely paid.” These issues hardly become disputes and never reach the court. With every new crop, a new story starts.

There are countless cases in which non-native traders establish credibility in a particular area for some years, paying every penny. “Then, one year, they purchase a whole lot of fruit, move home with it and switch off the phones,” Rashid asserted.

Storing For Spring  

The fruit enters a new ecosystem in case the grower chooses to store his crop to avoid the low rates triggered by the market glut. Usually, the best quality apple is retained by the growers and traders for an off-season sale, usually starting early March up to late June. Off late, Kashmir has created a huge infrastructure of controlled atmosphere storage.

“We have an overall investment of around Rs 1700 crore in the existing 2.25 lakh metric ton capacity,” Majid Aslam Wafai, the president of the CAS Store Owners Association. Though the main cluster operates from Lassipora in Pulwama, not far away from two south Kashmir mandis, the CAS stores clusters are now in Shopian, Anantnag and Sopore as well. “It will touch almost three lakh tones by the 2023 harvest.” He said around 2500 people are working in the CAS chain round the year with the appetite for more labour peaking in October and November.

The apple is retained in the stores till the market improves and then chambers are opened and the crop is graded on mechanised and hugely efficient grading lines. It is mechanically packaged and sent to the market.

“For every kilogram, we charge Rs 2 per month,” Wafai said. “For grading and packaging – at the time of exit of the stored fruit, we charge Rs 2 for grading and Rs 2 for packaging for every kilogram.”

This essentially means the growers pay Rs 45 crore a month for the fruit they store and when they wish to sell, they dish out another Rs 90 crore. For five months, the CAS stores chain earns more than Rs 300 crore every season.

Interest

Of late, the entire banking sector in Kashmir is making a good earning from apple. Earlier, it was the focus of the JK Bank. Now every bank jumps into apple to improve its priority sector lending. The government devised Kissan Credit Card (KCC) which offers loans – slightly at less interest – to peasantry and landowners.

A banker, who operates down south said the grower has to pay seven per cent interest on every penny under the KCC loan. In case the debt is required to fund any activity within the agriculture sector outside KCC, the costs go up to 12 per cent.

By the end of March 2022, the overall outstanding against the agriculture sector was at a whopping Rs 10651 crore, which included Rs 8793 crore of farm credit. More than 75 per cent of this loan book is owned by JK Bank. The NPA in this chunk of loans was at Rs 898 crore (8.44 per cent of the overall agriculture credit). Even in KCC alone, the NPA was put at Rs 259 crore, making almost five per cent of the overall outstanding under the concessional scheme.

Committed Expenditure

All these costs are committed. These have to be paid, regardless of the rate at which the fruit sells. The grower’s first priority is to ensure that they are able to recover these input costs first. Only after that does the real earnings of the grower start. While doing so, the grower plays a fundamental role in keeping the wheel of the Kashmir economy moving.

Historic nose-diving of rates may have demand issues, change in purchasing capacity of the consumer owing to inflation and Covid19 impact, shifted preferences of the consumer, or simply the availability of cheap alternatives from elsewhere. Regardless of everything, the grower has to ensure at least gets back his input. This only will ensure that he goes to the orchard again and hopes for the best, next season. It is this craving that makes him sell the produce at Rs 450 – the same box that fetched him Rs 1200 last season, to keep the show going.

While everybody is shouting about the low rates, nobody is intervening to offer him any concession. Apple growers needed some of Adam’s apple this season. The government avoided fixing the freight tariffs. Ideally, the government should have taken over the transportation on a no-profit basis, this season. No mandi is willing to reduce the commission or the set of charges they seek. No CAS owner is offering a 10 paisa discount. The government has not devised a minimum market support price.

Still, the grower keeps the economy moving. He continues to be the Greues (Kashmiri for farmer) and it is his wisdom that keeps the show on. At least this season, he re-establishes himself as selfless.

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