Panic among Kashmir’s apple orchardists due to adverse weather forecast, high cost because of workers' exodus
Forecast of impending rain and snowfall in upper reaches of Kashmir has raised the spectre of 2018 and 20219 when an early snowfall not only spoilt the crop but also wrecked havoc on the apple trees
At around half past eleven in the night, Irshad Ahmad and his two brothers were picking apples from their farm in south Kashmir's Shopian district using multiple flashlights. The trio struggled hard to harvest the crop before the clouds would mass in the sky and it started raining or snowing.
The meteorologists have given a forecast of rains and snow from October 22 to October 24 in the Valley, spurring thousands of farmers to harvest the crop in a tearing hurry.
Like Ahamd, many farmers are working late in the night to harvest their produce as quickly as they can.
"We have been picking apples since 6 in the morning and we hope we finish it before October 22," said Ab Rashid, an apple orchardist from Kanipora village of the apple-rich district.
Rashid said that the forecast had unsettled the entire apple industry and made the growers feel uneasy and worried.
Around 50 to 60 percent of the fruit, according to the growers, has not been yet harvested.
Mohammad Ashraf Wani, former president of Fruit Mandi Shopian, said that the apple picking in the higher reaches of the Valley began only a couple of weeks ago and "most of the fruit is still on the trees".
"Even a light snowfall or wind could spoil the entire produce," Wani said.
The forecast has raised the spectre of 2018 and 20219 when an early snowfall not only spoilt the crop but also wrecked havoc on the apple trees. At that time, untimely snowfall in the upper reaches of the Valley caused around 60 to 80 percent damage to the apple trees.
Last year, apple growers in the Valley suffered huge losses due to invasive spread of scab, which left black splotches on the skin of the fruit, downgrading its quality.
According to the farmers, the disease attacked around 80 percent of the fruit in apple-rich Shopian district, with the growers incurring heavy losses. They blamed the unabated sale of spurious pesticides in the area amidst the COVID-19 induced lockdown.
"Last few years were rather unlucky for the apple industry. However, this year we were expecting a quality produce, but the weather forecast has made us fidgety," said Mushtaq Ahamd, president of Fruit Growers and Zamindar Association.
The shortage of workforce due to the exodus of migrant labourers in the wake of the recent targeted killings in the region has also made things difficult for the apple growers.
According to the orchardists, the homeward journey of thousands of non-native labourers not only stymied the harvesting process, but also led to labour costs shooting up significantly.
"Due to the dearth of workforce, there has been more or less a crisis-like situation," said Ashiq Hussian, an apple trader.
Hussain said that the daily labour wages have gone up to Rs 800 to Rs 900 from Rs 450 to Rs 500.
Every year, around three to four lakh labourers from the Indian mainland arrive in the Valley in the month of April and head back home in December.
Given the weather forecast, the Department of Horticulture has issued an advisory asking the farmers to expedite the apple-picking process.
Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, Director General of Department of Horticulture, said that the farmers must speed up the harvesting process in view of the weatherman predicting heavy snowfall and rains.
"The farmers should prefer pruning of their orchards to protect them from damage in case of the snowfall," he said.
(Gulzar Bhat is a Srinagar based journalist. He writes about politics, conflict, human rights and culture.)