Soil Testing Labs, More Cold Storages: Farmers Propose Ways to Heal Himachal Pradesh’s Apple Economy

Soil Testing Labs, More Cold Storages: Farmers Propose Ways to Heal Himachal Pradesh’s Apple Economy

Himachal Pradesh’s apple economy has suffered an estimated loss of over Rs 1,000 crore. However, it is not just climate change that has badly hit the state’s apple economy.

Heavy rainfall, heatwaves and erratic weather have jolted Himachal Pradesh’s apple economy, resulting in an estimated loss of over Rs 1,000 crore.

However, it is not just climate change that has badly hit the state’s apple economy. According to ground reports, crores worth of apples were stuck in transit, due to which the stock deteriorated.

Coupled with bad weather and a lack of transportation infrastructure, farmers nearing harvest have to deal with labour shortages and pests attacks.

August and September are critical months for apple producers.

In August, Himachal Pradesh declared the incessant rains as a ‘natural calamity’ as torrential rains, floods and landslides killed around 330 people, and damaged over 12,000 houses. The state has suffered a loss of over Rs 10,000 crore.

Crop losses were the final straw.

For the new government these only indicate growing challenges for the first time chief minister.

The biggest challenge, perhaps, comes from the horticulture farmers who are a major vote bank.


The declining apple economy

Note that apple harvests in the state have encountered ongoing challenges throughout the current year.

Furthermore, on a closer look, it appears that Himachal Pradesh’s apple economy is decaying.

Apple production has sharply declined, along with soil fertility. Each year the bill for agri-chemicals and fertilisers is doubling but production for even the most progressive farmers is falling.

Warmer temperatures are shifting the apple belt to higher mountain plains, and some of the old apple growing belts can no longer grow apples. They are forced to diversify by nature.

In addition, there is a dearth of infrastructure such as cold storages and mini-processing plants at the village or block level. This increases the post-harvest losses for apple farmers.

There is an ever-widening gap between the current best practices in apple farming and the methods used by apple growers. However, the public agriculture university system has been working to bridge this gap.

Farmers have been using excessive fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides, which have contaminated the soil and water. Therefore, at this point, the damage to Himachal Pradesh’s biodiversity appears to be irreversible. This situation has also affected the rural communities and their health, resulting in increased cases of cancer and other food-style diseases such as diabetes, obesity, infertility, etc. across the state’s villages.

As the apple economy is declining due to agronomic, changing climate or economic reasons, rural Himachal Pradesh is reporting higher crime rate and drug use. If the apple economy crashes, it will have a grave impact on the state’s rural economy. Hence, the government needs to take corrective steps to rejuvenate the rural economy.


Solutions to healing the apple economy

Although one should be concerned by the declining apple economy in Himachal Pradesh, the path to recovery begins with farmers. To gain an understanding on their concerns and proposed solutions, The Wire spoke to some of them.

“Our apple farmers are plagued with many issues. Because of growing soil contamination, our fungicide usage has doubled, and fertiliser usage is also increasing each year. However, production has been declining, even after professionally using the prescribed inputs,” said Tikkamram Thakur, progressive apple farmer.

“Today, our farmers need the weather predictions and hail and rain alerts. This can be done via a simple SMS. The other urgent need is to have soil testing labs at the block level, so that farmers can get their soil tested for organic matter and other minerals, too. Currently, many farmers cannot get to the soil testing labs. And fungicide makers should be made responsible for their products. The state agriculture university should have to prescribe the fungicide/pesticide to the farmers, so that there is no overuse,” he added.

Commenting on the agriculture university, he said, “There needs to be more involvement of extension officers and the university in farmers’ training. We need to made aware about the new technologies and varieties in apples, so that we can remain competitive in the market. At present, the relationship between horticulture officers and farmers is broken. There is a need to build on it,” he said.

The next big challenge is the post-harvest losses.

Luder Chand, 45, an apple farmer, said, “We need to have mini cold storage or a large public-private-owned cold storage at the block level. And the districts or blocks that cannot have cold storage should be supplied with mini processing plants. We can make chips to wine from apples. With the right incentives and policy changes, the government can turn the apple economy around and reduce post-harvest losses.”

Yograj Thakur, 41, an apple farmer with five acres of land, said, “There is a need for diversification in the area. Otherwise climate change and supply and demand challenges can never be met. At the time of harvest Himachal is flooded with apples, which causes the prices to crash. As there are no cold storages available at the village levels, farmers have to sell their apples as soon as possible. If we diversify into plum, kiwi or even think of organic farming we could produce fruits, vegetables in other months, too.”

Among the various discussions this author had with farmers, one innovative idea emerged: to explore agro-tourism and establish partnerships with hotels and Airbnb accommodations in popular tourist destinations like Manali. These partnerships could involve providing guests with cartons of apples alongside their room bookings. The associated costs could be incorporated into the room rates, especially for mid and upper-range hotels. This could be seen as a “green tax” directly contributing to the revival and support of the local apple economy, considering the millions of people who visit Manali and other Himachali tourist spots each year.

Some believed that if this initiative is successfully implemented, a substantial portion of Himachal’s apple production could be consumed within the region.

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