Is the Changing Climate Eating the Apple?

Is the Changing Climate Eating the Apple?

Apple’s fate is sealed by climate change this year. It may no longer be the forbidden fruit, but it will undoubtedly be the most expensive fruit this season. And the money, as usual, won’t go to the farmers.

Apple production, a crucial source of income for many in Himachal, is said to have declined by 50% this year. The state, which contributes around 20% of the global apple produce, took a hit with unseasonal rains, snow, and other weather events that proved detrimental for the crop. It is estimated that this year’s apple production will only yield about 1.5 to 2 crore boxes as opposed to 3.36 crore boxes last year.

Such a significant drop in production is bound to directly affect the income of the state’s rural households. To comprehend the severity of the issue, we embarked on a journey through rain-affected Himachal.

Our first stop was in the Banjar Valley, the region that pioneered apple cultivation. The changing climate has posed significant challenges here. Apple cultivation has now shifted to higher elevations. We climbed the mountainside near Bhattar and reached the last village, Gadincha, where we spoke with Ramdass, a young apple farmer.

“This year has been a complete loss. Heavy landslides have destroyed apple trees and local wheat harvests. It all began with erratic weather in March-April when the pink buds were blooming. Suddenly, the temperatures dropped to zero, turning the pink buds black. Lack of sunlight for a few days led to a 10-15% loss in flowering. Subsequently, weather fluctuations, erratic rain and hail storms affected the remaining flowering, resulting in a total loss of about 40%,” Ramdass said.

When asked about his hopes for a harvest, Ramdass replied, “Since we are situated in the high mountains, September is the harvest time. This year, I may only get 10-15 crates compared to the regular season’s 500-600 crates on my four bighas. I won’t even recover the input costs this year.”

As we descended, we witnessed the devastation caused by the rains. Wheat and pea fields were destroyed, old bridges had been swept away, mountain trails eroded, and the rivers and rivulets flowed violently down the mountains.

Moving north into the deeper parts of the Kullu valley, we trekked up to Nathan village, situated in the high mountains. The road was mostly washed out, and the village lacked electricity, leading to a total blackout. Here, we met Pali Thakur, another young apple farmer, who was filled with despair. We walked through his apple orchard which was devoid of flowers and battered by the rain. “We plant 25 trees per bigha, and as you can see, none of them have good fruits or flowers. The rain and hail have caused extensive damage,” he said.

Intrigued by the actual losses, I inquired further. “In Nathan, being situated on a higher mountain, we already spend more on labor and transportation. However, we calculate costs per 20 kg apple box overall. We spend Rs 90 for transport and packing, Rs 28 on fertilisers, Rs 20 on pesticides and sprays and Rs 20 on weeding. So, approximately Rs 210-250 per crate accounts for the input costs each season. I haven’t even factored in the land value, family labor, and other expenses. Since we only have one crop per year, our entire earnings depend on it,” Pali said.

Pali, like most farmers in his village, did not anticipate a good harvest. However, the challenges extend beyond the Kullu valley. Heading towards Shimla, I met R.S. Minhas, who oversees a cluster-based business organisation working with over 40 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOS) in the region. The focus of our discussion was the apple industry. “Apple production is significantly lower this year. Flowering was affected not only in Shimla and the surrounding areas but also throughout Himachal. The pollen failed to mature due to temperature variations,” he explained.

To understand the underlying causes, I delved into the basics of apple cultivation. “Apple has three flowering stages, and two of these stages were adversely affected not only in Shimla and surrounding areas but across Himachal. Excessive cold followed by heat led to the withering of apple flowers. Some lucky farmers witnessed only the third phase of flowering. Overall, apple harvests are in a dire state,” Minhas elaborated.

Returning to Delhi I stopped at the Azadpur Mandi to answer one burning question: How would the market respond to this situation?

I spoke with Amitabh Dhavan, one of the prominent traders at Azadpur Mandi in New Delhi, who represents JCO traders. He stated, “Production is significantly lower, around 50% to 40% less, and apple prices will rise by approximately 25% this year. Apart from the impact on Himachal and Kashmiri apples, 99% of the cold storage apples have also been depleted. The only remaining option is imported apples, which will be sold at a premium too.”

With over two decades of experience in the industry, Dhavan attributed the situation to one factor – weather. “It’s undoubtedly the weather, 100%. Global warming and climate change have caused erratic weather throughout the year. Can you believe it snowed in Lahaul and Spiti recently? There was an extended winter, followed by sudden rains and heatwaves. Apple trees have been affected from Rajgarh to Lahaul,” he concluded.

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