Freak weather, hailstorms may impact flavour, quantities of Himachal apples

Himachal Pradesh, country’s fruit bowl ranking second in apple and almond production, may witness a 30-35 per cent decline in the apple crop besides flavour deterioration this year owing to freak weather conditions, say horticulture experts.

State Fruit of Himachal Pradesh and How to Grow It? • India Gardening

Growers say the loss could be 50 to 60 per cent.

As per farmers, the snowless winter and wet weather with the onset of spring for several weeks are the reasons for the crop loss. The impact is seen more on lower and mid belts. Harvest will pick in July and last till October-end.

But horticulture expert S.P. Bhardwaj is optimistic despite the decline in yield. He told IANS on Saturday that the natural fruit thinning of apple crop balances the amount of fruit left on trees with the leaf surface that provides the energy to grow and ripen fruit.

In developed countries, the fruit thinning is done to increase fruit size and enhance repeat bloom, Bhardwaj, former joint director at Dr Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan.

Apple is the most important fruit crop of Himachal Pradesh, which constitutes 48.8 per cent of the total area under fruit crops and 81 per cent of the total fruit production during FY 2021-22.

The area under apple has increased from 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 3,025 hectares in 1960-61 and 115,016 hectares in FY 2021-22.

Between 2007-08 and 2021-22, area under apple has seen a growth of 21.4 per cent. Shimla district alone accounts for 80 per ‘ent of the state’s total apple production.

As per the Economic Survey 2022-23, the state produced 674,000 tons of apples till December 2022. In the past 13 years, the leanest crop of 275,000 tonnes was in 2011-12 while the optimum of 892,000 tons was in 2010-11.

More than 90 per cent of the state’s apple produce goes to the domestic market.

But farmers are skeptical about the overall production of the apple crop this year.

They say the decline in the crop this time could be as high as 70 per cent compared to the yield of recent years.

Apple grower Rajesh Khimta in Karsog, the hub of apple orchards in Mandi district, told IANS the main reason for the decline in the crop is largely due to lack of winter snow and extensive rainfall during the spring and thereafter.

“Fluctuation in temperatures from March to May altered the timing of key plant physiological events like delay in bud break and full bloom period,” he explained. Also, the hails in May have damaged the crop extensively.

Another grower Vinod Chauhan, who owns an orchard in Banot in Kotgarh area, said the crop has also been impacted by hailstorms. “Though growers are’ using hail nets, but they can’t cover the entire orchards with the net.”

He said the old and senile apple plants need more chilling hours and have been severely impacted with almost snowless winter this time.

“For the past week we have been witnessing long sunny days that give you the feeling of summer. Otherwise, the temperature has been lying low due to regular showers. The vast variation of temperatures has impacted this season’s crop,” he said, while pointing towards trees that are normally laden with apples during this period.

Field reports say the crop loss in orchards located in lower belts of Kotgarh could be as high as 75 per cent, while in upper regions like Thanedar it could be 50 to 60 per cent. In the high altitude orchards the loss is around 25 per cent.

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The first apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh was planted in Kotgarh, some 85 km from Shimla, on November 6, 1916, and that had helped Kotgarh to progress economically, socially and also marked its presence on the global map.

However, horticulture expert Bhardwaj believes with the enhancement of rainfall activity during this period will help the crop gain in size.

“There is plenty of moisture in the soil that will enable the fruit to attain optimum size. Also the growers should not go for early harvest and colour spray,” he said.

As the fruit is sold on the basis of weight, the gaining of optimum size means overall increase in quantity, he explained.

The farmers should have to adapt to modern farming practices and replace the old and senile apple plants with exotic high-yield varieties. They should have to change their mindset that every flower turns into fruit, which is against nature.

“When too many fruits are left on a tree, the competition among fruit for scarce nutrients will limit the size of each fruit,” Bhardwaj added.

In a first, the Northern Railway has offered the facility to transport apple growers across the country through trains.

Also after successful trials in remote Kinnaur, private company Skye Air is going to introduce drone technology to transport apple boxes, weighing between 10 kg to 20 kg, across the challenging terrain of the hills.

The early-season varieties hit the market. They fetch Rs 900 per 20-kg apple box in the wholesale market in Bhattakufer near Shimla.

Superior grades like Royal Delicious, Red Chief, Super Chief, Oregon Spur and Scarlet Spur will start arriving by the middle of August.

Farmers and trade insiders say the overall apple production in the state has been erratic since 2010.

Experts believe changes in precipitation patterns like frequent extreme weather events both in summer and winter have impacted the taste, colour and texture of apples.

Fluctuations in temperatures from December to February, for example, every year have been preponing flowering in apple trees in spring and altering the timing of key plant physiological events like early bud break and full bloom period.

State’s apple boom is credited to Samuel Evans Stokes (later named Satyanand Stokes), an American missionary who first introduced the high-quality apples in the mid-altitude hills.

From a small orchard in Kotgarh, Stokes promoted the apple cultivation in other areas too, especially in upper Shimla.

Since then the hill state has been synonymous with apples that alone constitute 89 per cent of the state’s fruit economy of Rs 5,000 crore.

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