Padamdev, 52, has been a farmer at the Manglore-Banjar area of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh for the past 30 years. Over the years, he has mostly grown apples in his orchard but had to change a few years back after the cultivation of apples became difficult at the lower elevation where his village is located.

Experts have traced the difficulty in apple cultivation to change in weather conditions and have advised farmers to grow other horticultural crops like plums, peaches and pomegranates till they find a solution for apple production in the lower areas of Himachal Pradesh.

Padamdev had already thought about switching to pomegranate cultivation when the advice from the government came up. For him, the difficulty in growing apples didn’t lie only in climate-related problems. Growing pomegranates, simply, made more economic sense to him.

With climate-induced weather changes affecting the production of the famed Himachal apples, farmers in Banjar are switching to other horticultural crops, as it is no longer viable to grow apples in the lower areas.

Climate crisis

Climate change, researchers say, is adversely impacting the production of important agricultural and horticultural crops in Indian Himalayan Region, especially those in the lowlands. For example, an increase in temperature and decrease in winter rainfall and snowfall have reduced the number of chilling hours, leading to a decline in apple production in the region.

A study on horticulture, conducted by Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Program in different administrative blocks of Kullu, has classified the small town of Banjar as the most vulnerable region in Indian Himalayas.

Farmers in the town mostly grow Royal Delicious variety of apple, which requires 800 to 1,200 chilling hours. Significant increases in temperature during spring and a moderate increase in temperature during summer and winter seasons have lowered the available chilling hours in the region, and in turn, the productivity of the varieties that require longer chilling hours, says the study.

According to the study, water is scarce in Banjar, topography is difficult, land is fragmented and connectivity is low. It is difficult to continue with apple cultivation in this region because an increase in temperature leads to an increased need for water, which is insufficient.

The study has recommended the cultivation of pomegranates and apples of the spur variety rootstock apple that requires relatively fewer chilling hours – between 600 to 800 hours. The study has recommended poly-lined tanks using micro-irrigation technique in high-density apple orchards for improved water management.

Alternate crops

A study conducted by College of Basic Sciences, Palampur, found that about 63% of the farmers in Banjar have switched to alternate crops such as pear, kiwi, pomegranate, persimmon, cabbage and other vegetables along with apple crop.

Farmers said that apple trees start producing fruit after nine years while pomegranate fruit after four years. “I shifted to pomegranate because growing apples was not that profitable,” Padamdev told Village Square.

In a year, Padamdev makes Rs 1 million from six bigha or 1.5 acres of his orchard. He said that the annual maintenance cost of the trees and the orchard works out to around Rs 15,000 per biga, which means he spends Rs 90,000 per year on maintenance. “So, I make around Rs 9 lakh a year by growing pomegranate,” he said. “It is really profitable.”

Youdhistra Rathore, another farmer in the village has raised the number of his pomegranate trees to over 200 and also owns dozens of pear trees. “It has been 14 years since I started growing pomegranate trees,” said Rathore. “Since the year the trees started producing fruits, I have been making good money.”

His pomegranate and pear trees fetch him around Rs 8 lakh a year.

Farmers like Youdhistra Rathore who grow pomegranate now wish to revert to apple cultivation. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/Village Square

Motilal, a progressive farmer in Banjar, who had realised that apple cultivation was no longer sustainable in the region, diversified into other cash crops such as capsicum, pomegranate and mushroom using poly-lined tanks and micro-irrigation system.

A pesticides problem

Despite the economic benefits, farmers now worry about the huge amount of pesticides needed for pomegranate cultivation. Farmers spray pesticides five or six times for apples in each season. But for pomegranates, the number of sprays varies between 10 and 14.

This, the farmers said, might demotivate consumers from buying pomegranates as people don’t want to eat fruits that need a lot of pesticides. “It might become very difficult to sell pomegranates when word about their needing a lot of pesticides spreads,” Rathore told Village Square.

According to Motilal Negi, an officer in Himachal Pradesh’s horticulture department, insecticides are also sprayed on pomegranates to protect them from butterflies, whose larvae bore into the fruits and destroy them. “This can certainly make consumers give lesser preference for pomegranates,” he said.

High-density apple cultivation

Farmers, who started growing plum, pear and pomegranate after the impact of climate change affected their apple production, realised the economic benefits of cultivating pomegranates. With pomegranates, they earned twice as much they earned from growing apples. However, they wish to go back to apple cultivation.

What has made the farmers hopeful about reverting to apple production is the new variety of apple trees that can produce apples at lower altitudes. Negi said that the horticulture department of Himachal Pradesh is now promoting high-density apple tree varieties that can be grown at lower altitudes such as Banjar.

In general, about 100 apple trees are planted in a bigha; with new high-density varieties being introduced, 200 to 250 trees can be planted in one bigha. In addition to their concern about public health in case of pomegranate cultivation, the high-density variety is another reason for the farmers’ wish to revert to apple cultivation.

“Some farmers have already planted these trees,” Negi told Village Square. “But it is only a very small land area where these high-density trees have been planted. The area under high-density apple trees needs to be expanded so that farmers can grow both apples and pomegranates.”

The farmers believe that the new high-density varieties will give them an advantage as they can start their harvest in June-July. Normally the apple season starts from late August. According to them, this would give them a good market opportunity.

Athar Parvaiz is a Srinagar-based journalist.

This article first appeared in Village Square.