It’s harvest season in Kashmir. Roads that till just last week saw pitched battles between protesters and security forces are now bustling with tractors ferrying straw and empty wooden crates to orchards to pack fruits, primarily apples, one of the Valley’s most famous products and a major driver of its economy. These fruits will then be loaded onto trucks and ferried to different cities.

But even as trucks exit the Valley by the hundreds every day, and government figures indicate a threefold rise in shipments over last year, the numbers misrepresent the situation on the ground.

The summer of protests following the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by security forces on July 8, about 80 days of unrest on the streets with long periods of curfew have meant that fruit growers in many parts of the Valley have been cut off from their orchards and have been unable to reap the most of the harvest season. This, coupled with vagaries of the weather, have resulted in reduced output, lowered demand and increased costs of transportation. The end result is significant losses in revenue for fruit growers of the Valley.

As on September 23, said the Horticulture Planning and Marketing Division, 19,381 trucks had transported 2,06,555 metric tonnes of fresh and dry fruit.

This increase, however, has not yet translated into gains for the rural economy. In fact, fruit growers across the Valley said that the main reason why the transports have risen is that orchard owners are desperate to sell off their limited produce before it goes waste, as opposed to the usual practice of having a staggered harvest.

Bashir Ahmad Basheer, chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers and Dealers Association said that the fruit industry had incurred a loss of about Rs 1,000 crore till August end.

Weather woes

As the Valley emerged from its warmest winter in seven decades in February, trees started flowering ahead of time as there was an early spring of sorts. During the actual blossoming season, however, plunging temperatures and untimely rains caused many of the flowers that would eventually bear fruit to fall.

Apple trees in the Valley require, on average, at least 800-1,200 "chill hours" (cold weather where temperatures are about 7 degrees Celsius) in the months after the harvest to bear fruit again, said Dr Ghulam Hassan, assistant professor in the Fruit Sciences Division at the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences. This year, though the plant got adequate chill hours, the rise in temperatures in February caused trees to bear fruit early.

Shafeeq Mona, a fruit grower and exporter from Sopore in Baramullah district, one of the main apple-growing belts in the Valley, said the output of apples known as “delicious” or “red delicious” had fallen to 40% of their potential during spring itself.

Mayasar Ahmed Seh, a fruit grower in Pulwama, another major apple-growing region in the state, said that the output in his orchard was down by more than 70%. “The weather after blossom was not good,” he said. “Last year, we got an output of 5,500 crates of apple. This year the output was only 700.”

Fruit growers in Pattan, Baramullah, said they had faced similar problems. Abdul Rashid Malla from Nehalpora near Pattan said that the output in his orchard was down to 500 crates, from the previous year’s 4,000.

Dr Khalid Mushtaq, associate professor at the Fruit Science Division of the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences, said the irregular rainfall this year exacerbated the situation. “There was increased rainfall at the time of fruit development,” he said. “The humid conditions lead to pests and diseases apart from fruits having higher water content...leaf fall is also caused due to pests and diseases induced by the humid conditions”

In many orchards, trees started shedding leaves, cutting down the nutrition to fruits. As a result, there was a further dip in output. Many growers said they were forced to harvest the fruit prematurely.

Hit by protests

Strolling through his orchard in Pattan in Baramullah district, Bashir Ahmad Mir points at the fruits scattered on the ground and barren apple trees. With trees bearing lesser fruit this year, the few apples that have grown have increased in size and weight, and have subsequently fallen off the trees, growers said.

At times, protesters fleeing from security personnel would cut through orchards, fruit growers said, knocking down wooden poles meant to prop up branches heavy with fruit, resulting in more apples falling to the ground.

Apples that fall off the trees, called tchaant in the local language, cannot be shipped to other places. Even locally, they sell for substantially lower prices. And this year, owing to the unrest in Kashmir and the closure of shops for most of the summer, the local sales have reduced. As a result, a crate of fallen apples, which would usually fetch Rs 100, are selling for about half the price. The unrest has also reduced the flow of tourists into the state, thereby causing the prized Kashmir apple to lose out on a substantial share of outstation customers.

The unrest has also disrupted the transportation of fruits as truckers had to contend with roadblocks, stone pelting on highways and restrictions on traffic movement due to the curfew and protests. As a result, transporters have hiked their rates, causing further loss in revenue for apple growers.

“The Jawahar tunnel [the road link from Kashmir to Jammu and onwards to other parts of India] has been closed after 4 pm,” said Basheer of the fruit growers association. “It takes three days to clear the vehicles [that get stuck on the tunnel after its closure] and the produce spoils, bringing the value down.”

Desperate to minimise losses, growers had been risking their lives to travel to their orchards even during curfew and unrest on the streets, so that they could harvest whatever little produce has grown and pack them off in trucks. “But they are still not earning any money,” Basheer said.

Explained Rashid, the fruit grower: “The rates at which the fruits sell in the market do not match the investment put into it. Our profit margins have come down.”

No storage

The poor quality of the output has also meant that growers have been unable to store the produce to sell it later. “This year, cold storage chances are lower as the [quality] is not good,” said Shafeeq Mona, the fruit grower.

Apples need to be put in cold storage within 24 hours of harvest. However, fallen fruit and poor quality fruit cannot be stored for very long. Hence, growers have been in a rush to have their produce transported.

Officials of the planning and marketing division of the state’s horticulture department said that more trucks were being moved out of the Valley this year compared to previous years.

“Dispatches are at 2.71 lakh metric tonne this time compared to 1.15 lakh metric tonne last September,” said an official from the department who wished to remain unidentified. “The growers are in a rush to send their produce to outside markets.”

The official added: “This time even C-grade apples [the poorest quality of the fruit] are being exported rather than being sold within the Valley unlike previous years. The fruit growers have harvested the entire crop at once this time whereas earlier they would do it in stages.”

Growers and exporters are now hoping that sales, especially within the Valley, pick up in October as the unrest eases so that they can make up for their losses at least partially, by the time the harvest season ends in early November.