A quiet village on the outskirts of Srinagar is at the forefront of a change in Kashmir’s fruit market in the last decade. With the state government offering incentives to new Strawberry cultivators, the economy is expected to grow in coming years, Saima Bhat reports.
The first cash crop of Kashmir, the red, juicy and high suger content strawberries are about to hit the market by the mid of this month. This year, the farmers are expecting a good yield due to the timely rainfall.
“Strawberries were commonly grown in kitchen gardens. Before that, they were also grown in forests. But from nineties, people have started growing it in agricultural fields for commercial purposes,” Vice-President, Fruit Mandi, Parimpora, Mohammad Yasin says.
Altaf Ahmad has been in the business of strawberry cultivation from the last 12 years. “Actually my relatives in Dhara, Nishat, used to grow strawberries in their kitchen garden. I started the business on half a kanal land in early nineties. Within two years, I realized the market value of fruit and shifted to a bigger field of about 5 kanal land,” Altaf who owns the largest strawberry field “Strawberries Village” in Gosoo, Srinagar, says.
Locals of Gosoo village say the Department of Horticulture gets the sapling from them and supply it to other villages to extend the crop cultivation as they believe it will change the economy of people as it has in Gosoo. “It is not a primary crop but a secondary one. The strawberry saplings grow as an intercropping along with other fruits like Apple trees,” Akhtar Hussain, Deputy Director, Department of Horticulture says.
The Chandler breed of strawberry (from USA) and Senga Sengana (Poland and USA) breed are assets of Altaf’s farm. “Strawberry cultivation is profitable but at the same time it needs proper care. I remain busy throughout the year with my farm and finally my hard work pays me off,” says Altaf, adding, “I also earn by selling saplings. One sapling gives five runners and spalings for one kanal land fetches approximately Rs 18000.”
Strawberry is sold in market for just one month from May 15 till June 15 and its rate depend on the demand and supply. Usually 1 kilo strawberry costs Rs 320 at peak hours and then it gradually goes down to Rs 200. Apart from catering to the local market, strawberry from Kashmir is also supplied to many northern states, mostly Delhi.
Altaf says his 5 kanal land gives him a produce of 900 kg fruit which gives him a profit of Rs 1.5 lakh per year. Not only Altaf but his cousin, Abdul Ahad Mir, is also a known strawberry ‘specialist’. His strawberries have won Ahad a state award and he was ranked No 1 Progressive Farmer at the national level for 2009-10.
The cultivation of strawberries dates back to 1200 AC in Rome and Europe. but its history in Kashmir is not clear. The people associated with the cultivation say the fruit dates back to the time of British in India. As per Department of Horticulture, 86 hectares of land is under the cultivation of strawberries in J&K which gives a yearly produce of 1290 metric tons fruit. In Gusoo alone, about 37.5 hectares of land are under cultivation. Besides Srinagar, strawberries are grown in Ganderbal, Budgam, Baramulla, Bandipora, Kupwara, Islamabad and Pulwama.
The strawberries in Kashmir always remain in demand as they are very rich in sugar content than strawberries grown in the Himalayas and northern regions of India. And more importantly, it was historically used for medicinal use.
Deputy Director Hussain says Kashmiri strawberries are 98 percent organic as fertilizers and pesticides are rarely used for this crop. “Fungus and pests’ activity remains less during winter and spring seasons. But once the harvesting period is over, some pests like Aphis attack in May and pesticides are used after that,”
However, Altaf says insecticides like Copper oxy chloride and hexaconazole is used once if stem borer insect or fungus attacks. The land used for strawberry cultivation should be dry. It needs low temperature and bright sunshine. Proper irrigation is needed but it needs with alkaline soil.
The Department of Horticulture under a centrally sponsored scheme, Horticulture Mission in North East Himalyan states (HMNEH) gives material worth Rs 36000 per hectare for setting up the fields. “From this amount, we give farmers saplings, fencing material and pesticides for the first year . The saplings starts yielding fruit in the first year and there is no dependency after that,” Hussain says.
Once harvested, the farmers pack the strawberries and supply it to Srinagar’s fruit market. Last year, 240000 kg strawberries reached the market, says Vice-President Yasin says.