COVID-19: A long lull for Kashmir’s cherry, strawberry growers

Farmers struggle to find consumers, exports badly hit due to lockdown 

By Riyaz Wani
Published: Wednesday 03 June 2020

Cherry and strawberry growers in Kashmir are staring at massive losses due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

Kashmir has been under an uninterrupted lockdown since August 2019 that has hit the economy, including the fruit industry, quite hard. Horticulture is spread across 1.87 lakh acres and fetches the region Rs 6,500 crore. The lack of labour and absence of transportation, however, has led to rotting of the produce.

At least 80,000 tonnes of apples continue to be under controlled atmosphere storage in the Valley, according to an estimate.

While cherry and strawberries comprise a small component of the horticulture produce, they are highly perishable. Kashmir produces 13,000 to 15,000 tonnes of cherries and strawberries worth Rs 150 crore a year.

With mandis and markets shut due to COVID-19 lockdown, farmers fear that the fruit will go waste. Fearing the worst, fruit growers of Kashmir made a fervent appeal to people to consume local cherries and strawberries on May 31, 2020.

“The general public of J&K are requested to kindly consume cherry and other local fruits so that the fruit industry could survive and 10 lakh families that are connected to it do not face any hardship,” the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers and Dealers Union and the New Kashmir Fruit Association said in a joint statement.

Manzoor Ahmad Mir, a cherry grower at Lar in central Kashmir district, has 1.48 acres of land under cherry cultivation. He produces around 4,000 boxes of cherry, but is struggling to find buyers.

“We used to send two-third of our produce to New Delhi, Mumbai and other markets. Even if we are able to manage the transport, there are very few consumers,” said Mir.

He added that he used to ship cherry to Mumbai through air and railways earlier.

“We used to earn Rs 130-140 for every box of cherry,” he said. Cherry boxes fetch around Rs 100 in New Delhi. “We get Rs 40-50 per box in Srinagar fruit mandi. This doesn’t even cover our cost of production,” Mir added.

Strawberry is another fruit whose sales have been badly hit in the Valley. It is mostly grown over a limited land, in the village Ghoso on outskirts of Srinagar. They have a shelf life of two-three days and farmers have been struggling to sell it. One of them is Saqib Ahmad who has incurred a 30 per cent loss.

“Strawberry was sold at tourist destinations in Kashmir. Our only option is to sell the stock at the local mandi at a reduced rate. We have no choice,” he said.

But the cherry is still being harvested and farmers are confronted with a difficult choice. Kashmir produces four  varieties of cherries — Awwal Number, Double, Mishri and Makhmali. Mishri and Makhmali are largely exported to outside markets.

Chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers cum Dealers Union, Bashir Ahmad Bashir, who also sent the SOS for local consumption, has urged the Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu’s administration “to provide facilities for airlifting of cherry outside J&K”.

“But the administration has not paid any attention till date,” Bashir said. He also bemoaned the lack of availability of canning of fruit due to closure of canning units in Srinagar.

Bashir called on the administration to consider minimum support price of Rs 100 for all varieties of cherry. “This will go a long way to save us from losses,” he said.

Director of state horticulture department, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat, told Down to Earth: “We are providing transport facility to them and facilitating shipping of produce outside Kashmir. We have arranged passes for trucks so that nobody stops them,” Bhat said. He said Mumbai remained out of bounds, but added that they were in touch with the airport authorities to see if the produce could be transported to Mumbai.

But for the growers, it is the time that is of essence. “Our produce can’t wait. It needs get to the market soon,” said Bashir.

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