In the lush orchards of Shopian, the ‘apple town’ of Kashmir, Naseer Ahmad surveys the damage to his apple trees. For 50 years now, apples have been his lifeline. But this May, hailstorms wreaked havoc on his orchard, leaving him to brace for a second year of losses.
“Last year I could produce around 3,000 apple boxes…but I suffered losses as prices declined from ₹1,000 to ₹400 per box,” Ahmad recounts, his voice tinged with worry.
This year, too, nature has shown no mercy. The hailstorms in May destroyed about 40% of Ahmad’s apple crop.
This is not a solitary tale of woe. Apple farmers across the northern belt of India share Ahmad’s plight.
Freak weather through July and August this year and the resulting road blockages have worsened the situation for apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh.
Some recent estimates suggest nature’s fury this year has destroyed a staggering 70% of the apple crop in northern India.
Rajesh Khimta, an apple grower in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, echoes Ahmad’s concerns.
“Climate change is killing both the quality and quantity of apples. You always need moderate temperatures for quality apples,” Khimta says, lamenting the weather’s fickle nature.
The apple is no ordinary fruit in India. With an annual production of 2.35 million metric tonnes in 2021-22, India is the world’s fifth-largest apple producer. And Kashmir accounts for 72% of the nation’s apple yield.
The industry employs about 3.5 million people, and is a cornerstone of the local economy, contributing about 10% to the local gross domestic product (GDP), data from the horticulture department in Kashmir and the National Horticulture Board show.
In Himachal Pradesh, the area under cultivation had soared from just 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 114,144 hectares in 2021-22.
But now, the red apple seems to have lost its sheen. The very elements that once nourished the orchards seem to be turning against them. Climate change has been ruthless. A record production of 892,000 mt in 2010-11 declined to 625,199 mt in 2020-21.
Nature’s one-two punch
In addition to the storms, heat is also becoming an unrelenting adversary. Rising temperatures have been especially brutal on apple orchards, causing the blossoms to wilt before they can even turn into fruit. While hailstorms destroy mature fruit, extreme heat interferes with their very formation.
A 2023 report from World Weather Attribution says that in India, climate change has made heatwaves 30 times more likely and raised the temperature by at least 2°C.
The report paints a grim picture: “Until overall greenhouse gas emissions are halted, global temperatures will continue to increase…” It forewarns of frequent and intense climatic events turning the once-in-a-century episodes into a nightmare repeating every few years.
For a crop as sensitive as the apple, which thrives in moderate climates, the heat is yet another nail in the coffin, working in tandem with hailstorms to cripple the apple industry. It’s a one-two punch from nature, leaving farmers in a perpetually vulnerable state.
Javaid Iqbal, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences Kashmir (SKUAST), weighs in. “It is becoming routine now that characteristics of one season are often visible in another, and we are often unsure about which season we are in,” he says.
Iqbal’s words bear the weight of history. In the past, Kashmir had six unique seasons – sont, grisham, vahraat, harud, vandei, and shushur– that everyone could easily recognize. “But now, those seasons are mixing together and it’s hard to tell them apart.”
Iqbal says the famous deep red color of Kashmir’s apples is fading. He thinks that’s because the weather is changing – there’s too much rain in the summer and it’s getting too hot in the fall.
Temperature is the key to apple production, and Rifat Bhat, a fruit scientist associated with SKUAST, sheds light on this delicate balance. “For optimal growth, apples require at least 1,000-1,500 ‘chilling hours’ in winter, and no more than 21-24°C in summer.” The Himalayan region was once ideal, but the changing climate now poses a threat.
Changes in April temperatures can harm apple blossoms, and the summer heat can damage the apple skin, attracting pests and diseases.
“Temperatures of 7°C and below are effective in meeting the chilling requirements… These are not being met as the winters are no longer cold enough,” Bhat says.
The erratic weather, coupled with inadequate snowfall and rainfall, spring frosts, hailstorms, summer droughts, and unseasonal rain, have all conspired against the apple trees, leading to poor flowering and low yields.
Naqash Sarwar, a former director of horticulture with the J&K administration, concurs with Bhat. “Excessive rainfall in the past five years during the flowering season in April not only disrupted the pollination cycle but also made the apples more susceptible to diseases.”
The farmers’ relentless battle against pests and diseases is also escalating costs as they are compelled to rely heavily on pesticide sprays.
Indian apples have a tough time competing with fancier ones from other countries. One big reason is that India’s system for keeping apples cold and fresh isn’t great.
On 8 May, the government curtailed the import of apples priced under ₹50 per kg. The government move came at a time when imports had risen to $240 million in 2020-21, a 3.8% rise from $230.8 million in 2014-15.
Most imported apples come from Chile, New Zealand, Turkey, Italy, Brazil, and the US, with Chile alone contributing a quarter of the trade. Apples from neighboring nations such as Iran, the UAE (re-exports), and Afghanistan have also found their way into India.
There’s some good news though as Indian apples are also finding new homes abroad. Exports have swelled 68% to $14.45 million in 2020-21, from $8.6 million in 2014-15, government data show.
Susmita Dasgupta, an economist, says: “We need to be smart about how we handle apple imports and exports. If we focus on what we actually produce and consume here in India, there’s a real chance we could boost demand for local apples. But it’s crucial to get more cold storage facilities up and running to make this happen,” she said.
In India, people consume around 2.6 million metric tonnes of apples each year. Of those apples, 60% are high-quality (A-grade) and are eaten fresh. The remaining are of lower quality (B and C grade) and are usually processed into products such as jams and juices.
The domestic varieties, being of mixed grade, find favor primarily in urban areas of northern India because of the lack of adequate cold chain infrastructure.
India currently boasts 8,186 cold stores, but Jahangir Ahmad, a Kashmiri farmer, says those are not enough as these facilities have limited space and there are no government guidelines on how to run them. “Setting up a cold storage system is not benefiting the growers as it has limited capacity. There are also no clear guidelines from the government to run these cold stores, and the private sector running cold stores here charges as per will and offers storage space to people of their choice,” he says.
Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, landlocked and besieged by a fragile infrastructure, present a nightmarish terrain for apple transportation.
Similar to the freak weather this year, last September, more than 8,000 apple-laden trucks were halted for nearly a week due to landslides and snowfall, leaving the harvest to rot. With no train connectivity and recurring issues, the losses mount for apple farmers.
To be sure, apples are ready for harvest in September-October.
Outdated selling practices
Apple farmers are caught in an archaic seller system where the grower neither sells directly nor sets the price. Instead, a middleman hovers between the buyer and the seller.
Mukesh Singh, an apple farmer from Himachal, says: “This practice has been in place for decades. A farmer helplessly allows a fruit commissioning agent to sell his produce to buyers against hefty charges. It is a manmade loss for farmers because there is no fixed price set for apples in India.”
Mushtaq Ahmad, president of the Fruit Growers Association of Kashmir, shares the grim reality of commission agents, who charge around 10-12% per apple box in addition to handling charges.
“The agent would earlier bill even for phone calls…Now, they take a 12% commission from clients, who pay them upfront, and 6-8% from apple farmers who owe them money,” he says.
After dealing with middlemen and commission fees, farmers also have to face heavy taxes. Raju Sharma, an apple grower in Himachal, says that an 18% goods and services tax (GST) on apple packing materials such as cartons and trays is making things even tougher for them.
Turning over a new leaf
How can the apple industry turn over a new leaf? Experts advocate the need for competitive buyer systems, government-supported cold chains, and diversified apple products.
Santosh Mehrotra, a development economist and author, calls for a multifaceted approach. “We need more competition among buyers so good apples can get better prices. We should also turn lower-quality apples (B and C grades) into products such as jam and juice. This will help raise the price of top-quality apples and take off some pressure to have immediate cold storage,” he says.
Farmers have asked the government to keep apples out of future trade agreements to protect local interests. Climate change is a big worry. Farmers are trying new ideas like planting foreign apple types at higher elevations and using nets to protect against hailstorms. The government is helping by encouraging the use of stronger apple types imported from countries like Italy, China, and the US.
In Himachal Pradesh, farmers are diversifying into alternative fruits such as pomegranate, pear, kiwi, and persimmon. Intercropping apples with vegetables or pivoting to flower cultivation are also gaining traction.
The industry is at a turning point, and it needs a mix of modern tools, smart choices, and fair laws. These can make apple farming more stable, helping both the farmers and the future of Indian apples.