Warmer than Delhi and even Chandigarh, Shimla no longer seems to be a hill station as had been the case years back.
The horticulture scientists in Himachal Pradesh are pinning hopes on snowfall this weekend but a dry spell in the region, particularly a changed circle of snowfall, has already created widespread alarms. And this might severely impact Himachal's apple–belt, which is the backbone of the state's fruit economy and livelihood for 1.75 lakh families.
“Snowfall is the most important ingredient for the produce. December 2022 has gone without snow and half of January 2023 is over. We first got a symbolic snowfall last week, not enough to meet the chilling hour required for the orchards” says Dr S P Bhardwaj, Head Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Horticulture and Forestry (UoHF), Nauni, Solan.
He admits that orchards producing traditional apple varieties red gold and royal have lost an important period of mandatory chilling hours. The snow is a powerful cooling agent, especially during December-January to provide requisite chilling hours of 1100 to 1600 hours.
Though some of the new spur varieties and high-density plantations are not particularly in need of those longer chilling hours yet the snowfall has other benefits to condition the plants or overall health of the plants, before the orchards enter the flowering stage.
It’s because of the climatic factors that the apple crop has started withering in some of the areas in Himachal Pradesh earlier known for producing the best crops.
“Rajgarh and lower areas of Kotgarh are seeing impacts of the climatic changes as the apples are not at all-sustaining. One good thing definitely has happened that the farmers have diversified to other fruits like plums, Peaches, cherries and almonds,” feels Prakash Thakur, a former vice-chairman, of Himachal Horticulture Produce Marketing Corporation (HPMC).
An orchardist at Thanedar, Thakur recalls having seen four feet of snow in the orchards when he used to be in school. The snowfall used to start in November-December and continue till January end. Till March, there used to be mounds of snow all over the houses, orchards and paths.
“There were no snow clearance machines/JCBs. Manually, the snow used to be cleared of paths/roads but orchards have never been without snow," he says.
The Indian Meteorological Centre data at Shimla shows exactly similar conditions were witnessed in 2016 when the Shimla centre of the IMD recorded just 3.3 cm of snow in winter. It was slightly better in 2018 when 7 cm of snow was recorded. The absence of chilling hours had impacted the crop during these years.
In 2017, the conditions were comparatively better when Shimla recorded 84.6 cm of snow.
Another problem, which the fruit growers are facing is the lack of market for the apples stocked in CA stores during the season. The foreign apples have flooded the markets having no major demand from the bulk buyers for the CA-stored domestic apples.
“Right now apples are available in most Indian markets dropping the demand for Indian apples significantly. I have learnt that millions of boxes of apples are lying in cold storages across the country and the rates being quoted to us is from Rs 1,200-1,400 for 20 kg box,” says Prakesh Thakur, who earlier also was Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA).
There is also a bulk of duty-free apples being imported from other countries via Afghanistan.
The apple economy in Himachal Pradesh is worth Rs 5500 cr but climatic changes are hitting the fruit industry hard. Only those farmers who have adapted to changed conditions and replaced earlier fruits with high-density plantations or diversified are feeling secure, claims Dr Bhardwaj.