- Climate change has severely affected Himachal Pradesh's famous Thanedar-Kotgarh apple belt and other mid-altitude apple-growing areas
- This year's apple crop is expected to be 30-50% less, due to rising temperatures, lack of snowfall and rain
- Studies have established that from 1973-1990 to 2000-2007, average winter temperatures have gone up by 3 degrees centigrade and snowfall has decreased from 190 cm to 95 cm
- Apple farmers are now turning to mangoes, pomegranate, flowers
- Apple cultivation is now shifting to the higher altitudes of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts, though arable land there is limited
"The Golden Delicious is a very fine apple indeed and I am working to make Kotgarh the headquarter of this fruit in India..."
—Excerpt from a letter from Satyanand Stokes to his mother in the US in 1930
Himachal Pradesh's apple boom is credited to Satyanand Stokes, an American missionary (he later converted to Hinduism) who first introduced high-quality apples in the state's mid-altitude hills in the 1920s. From a small orchard in the Thanedar-Kotgarh belt, Stokes demonstrated how high-quality apples could be produced at altitudes of 4,000-6,000 feet. Since then, Himachal Pradesh has been synonymous with apples, producing Rs 1,500 crore worth of apples each year. Stokes's daughter-in-law, Vidya Stokes, a former minister of the state, now manages most of the family's orchards.
"The last few years have been quite bad and people have slowly begun to cultivate other fruit," she told Outlook. "But climate change has hit us the hardest this year. I expect production below 6,000 feet to be down almost 50 per cent because our orchards have had virtually no moisture this year."
So what really is happening?
At the Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture & Forestry near Solan, Dr K.S. Verma and his team of scientists have been studying changing climate patterns in Himachal Pradesh over the last 40 years. They took the average temperatures from 1973-90 and called it the baseline. "After comparing temperatures from 2000-2007 with the baseline, we found that in the mid-hills, winter temperatures have increased between 2.5 to three degrees centigrade. And with each degree of increase, the apple belt shifts upward by about 300 metres," says Dr Verma. As for snowfall, which provides the vital chilling essential for apple cultivation, it's down from 190 cm during the baseline years to 95 cm now. And while it used to snow in the mid-hills from November to April, now, snowfall is confined to January-February and only above 6,000 feet. This deprives the crop of sufficient moisture and chilling hours. Ideally, apple trees require temperatures below 7 degrees C for at least 1,500 hours during the growing season to yield a good crop. "If this trend continues, we might see apples vanishing from Himachal Pradesh, unless intervention in the form of low-altitude varieties of apples is made," Verma says.
Meanwhile, farmers are trying—as best as they can—to adapt to climate change. The best apples from Himachal now come from the high-altitude districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti At altitudes of 8,000-9,000 feet, where nothing much grew some years ago, apple cultivation is transforming the socio-economic profile of the tribal residents. Many of them used to live a hardscrabble existence, but things are now changing for them. Tsering, a marginal farmer in Kaza in Lahaul-Spiti, says, "Everyone who has any land at all is now planting apple trees. The extremely cold climate is most conducive to apples, and our apples fetch a good price in the markets of Delhi and Shimla because they have longer shelf life."
Meanwhile, in the traditional apple-growing areas of Kotgarh, Jubbal, Kullu and Kotkhai, where the fruit has brought unprecedented prosperity to the people over the last 50 years, there is a measure of envy at the shift in prosperity to the high-altitude tribal belt. "They are today where we were 30 years ago. They are the new apple kings—extremely prosperous, with huge properties in Shimla and Chandigarh," says Chet Ram Chauhan of Pamlai village, who has pulled out his son from a job in Shimla to help him in the orchards. "Earlier, we did not need to put in much effort for a good crop. A good snow cover ensured that our orchards got ample moisture and chilling through the slow melting of snow. But now, with little rain and even less snow, we are frantically trying to irrigate our orchards artificially, and anyone who can afford it is digging ponds to store rainwater," Chauhan says.
At the bottom of the hill is Samathla village (altitude 4,000 feet) where Gopal Mehta has cut down his apple orchards and is now growing mangoes on the terraced fields. He has another orchard above 6,000 feet where he still has apples, but even there, worried about being overtaken by bad news, he's replacing apple trees with cherries. Most apple orchards below 4,500 feet, where production has fallen drastically in the last few years, are being replaced by apricots, peaches, pomegranate and, in places like Bajaura in Kullu, with vegetables and flowers.
Warmer temperatures also mean more pests and a heavy dose of pesticide for the crop. This increases input costs, besides lowering soil fertility. As Verma points out, "Production is also coming down because increased use of pesticide is killing bees and insects so essential for pollination of apple blossom." But these problems are virtually non-existent in the cold heights. Apples from here come late in October and November, are virtually free of pesticides, and are of good quality. Since it is a cold desert landscape, farmers manage to provide irrigation from channels carrying snow melt from even higher reaches. But though this provides an opportunity for exploitation of newer areas, the fact is that the high altitudes have very little arable soil and areas that can be brought under cultivation are limited.
Apple-growing in Himachal Pradesh is certainly in a churn. The next few years will see more high-altitude areas coming under apple cultivation. But what will happen once the mountain tops, too, become too warm?