Manzoor Ahmed, a strawberry grower in Gassu village on the outskirts of Srinagar, has thrown away 800 kg strawberries in the backyard of his farm as he could not find any buyers for the luscious fruit amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. This is nearly 40 percent of his crop for this strawberry season in Jammu and Kashmir that lasts from May 15 to June 15.
Ironically, while the strawberry harvest is better this season, the losses will be much higher.
The rate for strawberries has nearly halved to Rs 55 from Rs 100 per kg last year.
And farmers have no ray of hope in sight.
About 40 kms away in Pulwama’s Rajpur area, a cold storage facility owner is throwing away apples that have rotted because of lack of buyers.
Farmers keep apples in cold storage after harvesting them between October and December.
In the off season from March to June, the stored apples sell at Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 per box of 15 kg whereas its seasonal price may be Rs 750 to Rs 800 per box. However, since dealers are unable to move the fruit out of the Valley this year, apples worth Rs 2,000 crore may not find a market and could end up on the roads.
The story is not very different with cherries, which farmers are being forced to sell at just Rs 50 per box, one-fourth the price they got last season, not even enough to recover the cost of production.
Growers are harvesting and packing cherries themselves in the absence of labour due to the lockdown. Pic: Wasim Nabi
“If I get just Rs 50 for a box of cherries, I am not planning to harvest the rest of the crop. I will let the fruits dry on the trees. It will at least save harvesting costs,” says Bashmir Ahmad, a fruit grower from Harwan area in Syedpora.
“We suffered huge losses due to last year’s clampdown followed by the lockdown. Now, dealers are not giving us the right rates,” Fayaz Ahmad, a cherry grower, says.
Labour, transportation & COVID-19
Strawberry, cherry and apple growers in Jammu and Kashmir are staring at historic losses as the state struggles with the pandemic that has turned everybody’s lives upside down.
With no transportation and fruit mandis across the country being shut, the fruit growers find themselves at the mercy of fruit dealers and are forced to accept whatever price they pay.
“We send strawberries to Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi. But since fruit mandis are closed everywhere, the situation looks grim. The losses this year will hurt my ability to produce the crop next year,” says Riyaz Ahmad, a farmer at Hazratbal on the outskirts of Srinagar.
“The shelf life of strawberries is just two days. I cannot find any buyers as everything is shut. Harvesting was also difficult this year as locals from nearby villages who work in our farms at this time of the year, have not been able to come,” says Ahmad.
Bashir Ahmad Bashir, Chairman, Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, says due to the short shelf life, strawberries are air lifted and sent to other states.
“This year, transportation through neither air nor train was allowed, resulting in massive losses,” he says.
The main buyers of fruits are dealers from Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Almost 90 percent of the fruits are sold outside the valley while people in Kashmir prefer to consume watermelons, muskmelons and mangoes from other states.
Farooq Ahmad, a member at the Fruit Mandi Association of Kashmir, says the exact figure of losses is yet to be ascertained. But cherry, apple and strawberry growers are facing a never-before crisis.
Kashmir produces 12,000-13,000 metric tonnes of cherries every year.
Strawberries are selling at only Rs 50 per kg as against Rs 100 last year. Pic: Wasim Nabi
“We are only into the second week of cherry production and it is an eight-week season from May to July. We are running into loss from week one,” Farooq Ahmad of the Fruit Mandi Association of Kashmir, says.
India’s apple bowl
Jammu and Kashmir contributes 20 lakh metric tonnes ofapples to India’s annual produce of 25 lakh metric tonnes, about 80 percent of the total production.
Over 80,000 tonnes of apples, worth about Rs 2,000 crore, are in cold storage and may rot during the coronavirus lockdown.
Apples can typically last in cold storage for up to six months.The flip side of this is that there are no storage facilities for the current crop of strawberries and cherries.
Apples fetch double the price during off season, up to Rs 2000 per box of 15 kg. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Gulam Nabi Dar, an apple grower, says, “We have to pay the rent for cold storage. Though we have got exemption for two months, facility owners are demanding rent from us."
We are forced to dump our fruit because it is rottingand because we can’t afford to pay rent. Even if I sell all my property, I may not be able to make up for the losses,” Dar adds.
There are 18 operational cold storages in Jammu & Kashmir besides eight controlled atmosphere storage facilities.
Director Horticulture, Kashmir, Dr Aijaz Ahmad Khan says there has been a huge impact on the fruit business due to the prolonged lockdown and the administration is trying to help the growers.
“Since our market is now limited to north India, our sales have been severely impacted.”J&K is expecting strawberry production of about 300 tonnes this year and cherry production of 13,000-14,000 tonnes.
Khan says the administration was assessing labour requirements of the 19 fruit canning units, which could process the fruit crops. “I have sought permission for the passage of cherries through Mughal road, which is otherwise closed to the public. We are also considering allowing fruit vendors to sell fruits on roads that would help consumption of about 400-500 tonnes.”
While the administration is trying to ease the problems of fruit growers, it seems like a case of too little too late. In spite of the best efforts, with a short season, especially strawberries and cherries, it seems like the rest of India may just miss out on these delicious fruits this season.
(Lead Pic: by Wasim Nabi)
(Wasim Nabi is a Srinagar-based freelance multimedia journalist; Musaib Mehraj is a freelance journalist from Kashmir).