Local farmer Subodh Kumar (left) earns Rs 15 lakh a year from apple harvest, a marked improvement from what his ancestors made growing potato. Photo: Author provided
Local farmer Subodh Kumar (left) earns Rs 15 lakh a year from apple harvest, a marked improvement from what his ancestors made growing potato. Photo: Author provided

Global warming’s unforeseen outcome: How Spiti’s new crop of apple farmers are reaping a fortune

The transformation has helped marginalised farmers and also provided benefits beyond financial gains

Only the brave who venture into the unknown discover hidden treasures. This proverb is apt to describe the new and flourishing apple cultivators of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. 

Situated along the borders of India and China, Spiti’s harsh climate was deemed unsuitable for growing apples until about three decades ago. Initially, only a handful of residents dared to experiment, planting a few apple trees in their kitchen gardens. Yet, the harsh climate, characterised by freezing temperatures, and coupled with a lack of knowledge and maintenance, resulted in minimal fruit yield.

With gradual warming of temperatures observed over the past few decades, a remarkable transformation has occurred. Apple cultivation is now viable in the lower regions of Spiti, up to an elevation of 3,400 metres above sea level. Consequently, farmers are transitioning from traditional crops like barley and potatoes to grow apple, recognising its economic significance.

Apple cultivator KT Bodh (right) in Chandigarh village, Spiti. Photo: Author provided

While the warming is worrisome from a larger environmental perspective, the change has, undeniably, bolstered the farmers’ economic prospects. “As children, we could scarcely envision such a shift from cultivating potato and barley to nurturing apple orchards,” said KT Bodh, a farmer and retired government officer from Hurling village. He added: 

This transition has not only revitalised our household economies but has also empowered even the most marginalised farmers. 

His sentiment rang true when we compare the current income of farmers with those from two decades ago.

Previously, a marginal farmer, with a landholding of 3-4 bighas (2,400-3,200 square metres), could only generate Rs 4,000-5,000 annually from potato and barley harvest, as Spiti’s agricultural season spans from April to October. Farmers primarily sold their produce to local traders or labourers. 

“Innovation and foresight marked the journey of pioneering farmers who ventured into apple cultivation as early as 1970-71. Late Chhimet Dorje from Hurling village, along with Phunchok Rai and Late Lobzang Dorje from Lari village, are revered as the pioneers of this effort,” Bodh added.

Beginning with just 30-35 Royal Delicious apple plants sourced from Shimla, they started on a journey that would transform Spiti’s agricultural landscape, the local farmer shared. The arid terrain of Spiti, devoid of rainfall, posed a significant challenge, particularly regarding irrigation. Undeterred, these farmers persevered, transporting water on mules from nearby streams to nurture their saplings, he said. 

Apple tree in full glory at KVK, Tabo. Source: Author

However, the progress was not without its trials. In 1975, a devastating earthquake struck Spiti, compelling the residents of Kaurik village to seek refuge in Hurling. The resettled village, aptly named Chandigarh (inspired by the ‘City Beautiful’), commenced agriculture and apple cultivation on a small scale in 1979-80. Today, from the same land, farmers like Bodh are reaping the rewards, earning up to Rs 12 lakh from their apple harvest over an area of 10 bighas. 

The ripple effects of this agricultural transformation extend beyond mere economic gains. Families now have the means to send their children to pursue higher education in distant cities like Shimla, Dharamshala, Chandigarh and even Delhi, a prospect unthinkable just a couple of decades ago. “This underscores the profound socio-economic impact that apple cultivation has had on the communities of Spiti,” said Bodh.

Subodh Kumar, a farmer from Lari village, also shared how apple cultivation significantly bolstered the income of cultivators like himself, beginning with the example of his family. In the past, his father, Late Lobzang Dorje, relied on barley and potato crops, earning an annual income of Rs 20,000-30,000 from an area of 10 bighas. However, since transitioning to apple cultivation, their earnings have soared. They now generate an impressive Rs 15 lakh annually from the same area, he said.

Kumar’s achievements in agriculture have garnered recognition. In 2023, he received the ‘Millionaire Farmer Award’ from ICAR, Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. This prestigious accolade primarily celebrates the substantial income generated through apple cultivation, highlighting the transformative impact of this shift in agricultural practice.

Both Bodh and Kumar acknowledged a pivotal turning point: The establishment of the Regional Horticultural Research Sub-Station by YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in 1981-82 (under erstwhile HP Agricultural University, Palampur, later transferred to YS Parmar University in 1985). With guidance from scientists, the local farmers gained a deeper understanding of the importance of scientific practices and orchard management. This instilled confidence among them, prompting a transition from traditional agricultural crops to prioritising apple cultivation as their primary cash crop.

Barren yet beautiful landscape in Spiti valley awaiting apple transformation. Photo: Author

Furthermore, the recent establishment of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), Lahaul & Spiti-II at Tabo under ICAR-ATARI Zone-1, funded by ICAR, has accelerated the dissemination of knowledge on scientific apple cultivation. RS Spehia, senior scientist and head of KVK, corroborates this, citing data that illustrates the widespread adoption of scientific methods among farmers. 

As a result, apple cultivation flourished, expanding to over 660 hectares. In the 2023-24 season, Spiti Valley produced about 196,000 boxes of apples, valued at approximately Rs 34 crore. These fruits find their way to various markets, including Delhi, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Chennai, with a significant portion also earmarked for export.

The KVK addressed numerous inquiries regarding new apple varieties and natural farming techniques. Spiti valley possesses immense potential for producing chemical-free apples. To demonstrate the efficacy of natural farming, the Front Line Demonstrations (FLD) are conducted in the farmers’ fields. These FLDs showcase various natural farming techniques, allowing farmers to witness the results firsthand.

Credit for the apple boom in the valley is rightfully attributed to past and present scientists and staff who have tirelessly worked at the Regional Horticultural Research Sub-Station (RHRSS) and KVK. Their efforts have enabled aggressive extension activities throughout Spiti valley. 

However, due to climatic constraints, apple has not extended beyond 3,400 m above sea level, leading to a bit of jealousy among farmers at higher reaches who are awaiting climate moderation, so that apple reaches their forbidden lands and they can also reap benefits.

Spiti’s apples are esteemed globally for their exceptional quality and extended shelf life. However, the future of the industry hinges on farmers’ cultivation choices and the scientific community’s unwavering support in facilitating them.

RS Spehia, senior scientist & head, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Lahaul & Spiti-II at Tabo, Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni-Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Inder Dev, director of extension education, Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry. Ankita Dhiman, assistant professor, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Lahaul & Spiti-II at Tabo, Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry. Bandana Dhiman, assistant professor, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Lahaul & Spiti-II at Tabo, Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry. Rajeshwar Singh Chandel, vice-chancellor, Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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