Climate Change

Can high density plantations save Himachal's apple economy?

While experts say the technique can help the state fight climate change, farmers are worried if the state government is prepared

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 30 July 2019
Around 100 farmers came for a day visit to the high density apple plantations at Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry.
Around 100 farmers came for a day visit to the high density apple plantations at Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry. Around 100 farmers came for a day visit to the high density apple plantations at Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry.

Farmers in Himachal Pradesh are currently in a fight to save their apple tracts that have been hit hard by climate change. They are adopting the new technique of high-density apple plantation being promoted by the state government.

One-third of the hill state’s population depends on the Rs 4,000-crore apple economy. Over the last few years, the changing climate pattern marked by a decline in chilling hours has shifted apple belts in different districts to higher regions, but the high density plantation technique can fight that, said horticulture experts.

This initiative, which deviates from the traditional cultivation methods, is currently on in Himachal and Jammu and Kashmir. The effort now is to retain the area that has traditionally been under apple cultivation albeit through new varieties.

“When I was young we used to have apple plantation in Rajgarh area of Sirmaur. But, over the years, I witnessed these plantations making way for the stone fruit. Now we are again able to grow apple in the area. The variety is delicious and the colour development is satisfactory,” said JS Chandel, an expert in fruit sciences at Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry at Solan.

The university is helping implement the Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Development Project (HP-HDP) that covers apple and stone fruits in the temperate zone and training farmers about the technique. The Rs 1,134 crore World Bank-funded project started in 2016 and is scheduled to continue till 2023.

“The high density plantation is basically aiming at an increase in both productivity and quality. It will also help farmers meet the challenge of scarcity of labour. The varieties of apple are mainly spur type with high colouring stains,” Chandel told Down To Earth.

This technique was first tested in experimental orchards that resulted in a high yield of up to 60 to 70 tonnes, claim experts. Himachal Pradesh farmers are looking at a productivity of up to 30 metric tonnes in their orchards under local conditions.

“High density planting refers to planting of higher number of plants per unit area than usual. Conventionally, standard apple plants raised on seedling rootstocks are planted at a spacing of 7.5X 7.5 metres with a planting density of 178 trees per hectare and spur varieties on seedling rootstocks are planted at a spacing of 5 X 5 m with a planting density of 400 plants per hectare,” said the spokesperson of the university.

“The average productivity of these orchards is approximately 6 to 8 metric tonnes per hectare, which is much below the productivity obtained in high-density orchards — 40 to 60 MT per hectare,” the spokesperson told Down To Earth while adding 5,333 apple plants on clonal rootstocks can be planted per hectare to increase production and better quality.

With the increasing pressure on land and reduction in average size of land holdings, shifting to high density planting is needed since it makes trees more precocious, heavy yielders and ones that bear better quality fruits, said experts. 

Also, since high density orchards can be developed on flat and fertile lands too the technology is helpful in utilising land, provide ease in orchard inter-culture operations, plant protection, harvesting and obtaining export quality of the produce.

The university is studying several apple varieties — Jeromine, Red Velox, Red Cap Valtod, Scarlet Spur-II, Super Chief, Gale Gala, Redlum Gala and Auvil Early Fuji.

Are there enough plants?

But farmers are worried if the government will be able to supply enough plants and train them to meet the challenge.

At an interaction with experts at the university recently, more than 100 farmers from apple producing districts of Kinnaur, Shimla, Chamba, Mandi, Kullu and Sirmaur said the biggest challenge they face is planting material.

“Where do we get the plantation material from? The government has been giving just a miniscule proportion of the plants that we have been seeking. I want plants in thousands,” Duni Chand, an apple grower from Ani in Kullu district, said.

But there is no instant mechanism available that will help procure lakhs of plants, said experts.

“Apple is not a seasonal crop like vegetables. It takes years to develop an orchard. So, a lot of clarity is needed. The government must first stock planting material of various varieties,” said Kuldeep Tanwar, Kisan Sabha leader.

“The farmers are being confused on natural farming of apples. How is this possible when the planting material is imported?” Tanwar added.

However, Project Director Dinesh Malhotra said the concerns on availability of planting materials are misplaced.

“If the material was not available there would have been a hue and cry by now. The Horticulture Department sells around 2 lakh plants every year and we are also importing more and more plants for propagation every year. Over the next four years there would be 30 to 50 lakh plants available for farmers,” he said.

He, however, added that the farmers’ claims are acceptable when it comes to high-yielding varieties, but even that concern is being addressed.

Other challenges farmers face are lack of knowhow and canopy management.

 “Science has to be followed to make the initiative successful. Faith in science is the most important. Your queries from the field will lead to further research,” JN Sharma, a senior scientist at the university, told the farmers.

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