Imagine if apples vanished from the hills of Himachal Pradesh? The soul of name Samuel Evan Stokes—the American missionary (who later converted to Hinduism and took the name of Satyanand Stokes) credited with the apple revolution in 1916—will never forgive the people of Himachal Pradesh.
However, an economy of Rs 5,500 crore—the mainstay of over two lakh families in districts of Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Kinnaur, Chamba, Sirmaur, and high-altitude areas of Lahaul-Spiti—is encountering a challenge posed by the climate crisis.
Due to a disproportionate rise in temperature — like the early heat waves in April-May, the entire mountain ecosystem is witnessing disturbed snow and rain patterns. This has led to cutting down on chilling hours of traditional apple varieties, viz American Red Delicious and Royal Delicious.
The reduced instances and the change in timing of snowfall had decreased the chilling hours, ultimately resulting in poor quality yield. A new phenomenon is the gradual shifting of the crop from lower and mid-elevations to higher altitude. The shift is linked to non-fulfilment of specific requirements concerning weather parameters like temperature, rainfall, snowfall, humidity and evaporation threatening the future of the apple sector.
Stokes had planted apples at his village of Barubagh (Thanedar), 80 km from Shimla, and motivated the locals to adopt a culture of growing apples instead of potatoes, because he found the climate highly suitable for apple cultivation.
“Climate now is undoubtedly the biggest casualty. There is a clear rise of temperature up to 1.5 degree Celsius. The traditional varieties of apple plants that have sustained in our orchards for the past 40 years or more cannot bear fruits in the warmer climate. The apples at a height of 5-6,000 feet are shifting the habitat at least 1,000 feet because their chilling hours can’t be met at this height anymore now,” says Deepak Singha, a Kotgarh orchardist and co-founder of Himachali Fruit Producers Corporation.
The changes in the orchards are happening due to environmental factors, so fast that apple growers are unable to predict what will happen 15 days ahead. The productivity is falling. Weather hostilities are on the rise. The plants are battered and withering. Apple growers resort to excessive use of fertilisers, sprays and pesticides. It’s not working as the fault is clearly somewhere else—the climate change.
Singha’s views are also endorsed by Dr SK Bhardwaj, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Solan.
Dr Bhardwaj tells Outlook, “The apples grown at 1,200-1,300 metres high are shifting their habitat towards higher elevations after not being able to access the mandatory chilling hours’ requirements. Apples, mainly the traditional varieties, require 1,200 to 1,500 hours of chilling at 7 degree Celsius. The precipitation in the form of snow is important and sensitive climatic factors for dormancy but break proper flowering in apples.”
Whenever there is a prolonged dry spell, failure of proper and timely snowfall or rains or delay in cold conditions, especially in December-January, causes a cut down on the chilling hours. This is the biggest factor linked to climate change impacting Himachal Pradesh’s fruit industry, of which apples form a dominant part. The warming of areas known for producing apples has led to movement of the orchards to higher mountains.
Till 10 years ago, Lahaul-Spiti—a tribal district across Rohtang Pass (13,059 feet)— was never known for apples. But now, even Spiti and the entire belt between Tabo and Kaza—also known as cold deserts— are producing the best varieties of delicious crispy fresh apples. Earlier these areas were considerably unsuitable for apples and focus was also in apple-belts of low and middle heights.
“Horticulture scientists and policy makers who have introduced apples in Lahaul-Spiti and our farmers who get just six months for farm operations (as the area goes down under the snow for half of year), deserve credit for making Spiti an apple bowl in a high-altitude region. This has brought economy to the area,” informs Ram Lal Markanda, local MLA and minister for tribal affairs.
Setting-up of a search station of the Y.S. Parmar Horticulture University at Tabo was the biggest boost to farmers who used it to access favourable climate conditions and catch-up with previously apple growing belts of Kotgarh, Jubbal, Kotkhai, Theog, Thanedar, Rampur, Rohru and Chopal. Apples have also become a major game-changer for farmers of Pangi and Bharmour in Chamba and Kalpa, Pooh and Sangla in Kinnaur—all high elevations despite areas having poor/or no road connectivity till 2010.
Some of the studies, done by Y.S. Parmar Horticulture University, show that there is a notable decline of 25-40 per cent in the yield of traditional apple-growing areas.
“Most of these areas in the state are rain-fed. The weather maintained such an excellent cycle of snowfall and rains in Himachal Pradesh that apple producers considered these God gifted. A perfect combination of winter, summers, spring and monsoon, was a boon for everyone into apple farming,” Singha recalls.
“Most of the climatic changes in the Himalayas were slow and people thought it would take some years to notice the impact. But the changes have happened very fast in the past one decade. Weather water availability, disappearing snow, increased environmental pollution (more carbon emissions), desertification and new diseases are due to rise in the heat,” feels Prajwal Busta, a youth icon and orchardist. She stressed the need for diversification towards cultivation of low-chilling apples and shift to fruits like apricots, plums, peaches, kiwis and others.
Orchardists like Singha had already started holding workshops, seminars and interactive sessions with growers, in collaboration with horticulture scientists to introduce high density apple plantations, imported varieties of plum and high yield fruits.
Dr Vijay Singh, a former vice-chancellor of Y.S. Parmar Horticulture University, believes that the depletion of snow cover, warmer climate and low chilling hours have left a greater impact on fruit-bearing conditions. The arrival of the monsoon, after this year's heatwave and warmer climate, is a piece of good news before the season's apple crop harvest begins in Himachal Pradesh.
Kotkhai-based leading orchardist Ram Lal Chauhan, a six-time national awardee for producing top-quality apples, predicts that if the conditions persist, apples will vanish.
He warns, “Since we haven’t replaced over century-old delicious varieties with low-chilling foods like gala and fuji, things look terribly bad. If apples vanish the farmers will become debt-ridden.”