After California almonds pushed Kashmiri homegrown dry fruits to the market margins, now their blooming fields are falling to a host of factors in the ‘shifting’ Valley. The shrinking ‘badam’ territory has already threatened to disrupt Kashmir’s rich almond culture.
The unfolding scene is an idyllic one, yet deceptive…
There’s a weather-beaten farmer, standing in the middle of his almond-rich orchard—in a Budgam hamlet where the last battle between the Pakistani irregulars and the air-dropped Indian army in the fall of 1947 proved to be a watershed event. Surrounded by some men, the farmer seems to be pleased with a ‘good crop’, courtesy, ‘good weather’.
But before one could mistake the sight for a all-is-well almond farming, a reality dawns, and one realises that the bloom is only masking the growing unseen ‘doom’. In a land where brick kilns are now driving the new economy, swathes of almond land have already paved way to mushroomed structures, blacktops and smoke-pluming units.
But the trend isn’t confined to Budgam alone.
In fact, Kashmir’s farming practices have been witnessing a radical shift since the past thirty years. Before a certain trader-turned-lawmaker would flood the market with his pesticides and fertilizers, Kashmir’s agrarian fields were far from the cash crop competition.
That was the time when the almond bloom would serve as the sign of celebrated spring arrival in Kashmir—before JK’s ex-chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad would recreate some of that aura by reopening the revamped Badam Vaer in downtown Srinagar in mid-2000.
But behind the façade of that festivity—a subtle form of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s Jashn-e-Kashmir—which even saw the former dispensation sending folksingers to lift the mood in the gardens, the almonds struggled to keep pace with the changing times.
That indiscernible fall, however, hardly derailed the enforced almond celebrations.
From wooing tourists to a particular almond garden—the sizeable part of which has now become a posh housing colony, thanks to the growing tribe of land brokers in Srinagar—to sell the cultural Kashmir, where almonds traditionally serve as the enriching ingredient in Kehwa, Halwa, Palav and many other recipes, the campaign surrounding almonds apparently proved to be a grand deception.
The sponsored gimmick conveniently nullified the larger ‘nut’ menace.
While many almond highlands in and on the outskirts of Srinagar have been long buried under the construction boom, the not-so-far Kashmir countryside itself struggles/struggled to keep a tab on the blooming fields.
Besides Budgam, the other major badam bowls— Pulwama, Baramulla, Kupwara and Islamabad—currently witnessing the harvest season (between August and October), underwent a sweeping change.
“This year,” says Mohammad Rajab, a sun-tanned orchardist from Pulwama, “our orchards are teeming with better almonds than the previous year.”
Despite the bumper crop, however, there’s a growing concern. “We’re fast losing almond fields,” the orchardist says.
Some years back, many growers converted their almond orchards into apple and plum fields, Rajab continues, considering the higher profits linked with the cash crops.
While the shift is mainly being attributed to the toiling all-weather farming season, the other spoilers include low returns (in terms of kind and cash), land conversion for residential purposes and planting of other types of fruit trees.
Even the Horticulture Department of Kashmir paints a doomed picture.
From 16,775 hectares in 2001-02, the land under almond orchards in Kashmir has come down to 6,973 hectares in 2016-17, it says.
But a whopping loss of 9,802 hectares of almond land in the last sixteen years is hardly ringing the alarm bells.
“Most of the almond fields in our area are on the hills,” says Ghulam Mohammad Dar, a grower from Budgam. “Land owners have started selling soil of these hilly almond fields, which has further doomed the cultivation prospects.”
In 2013, the grower says, the big almond bloom vanished within days due to the unfavourable climatic condition. “With the result, we had to axe half of the almond orchards and replace it with apple trees.”
But those who’re still into almond farming now mainly grow Burzali/Kakzi almonds, known for their unique looks, good taste and brittle shells.
“Many of us cultivate Burzali almond because of its high price and demand,” Dar says. “We hardly cultivate Waint/Dade almonds [known for their hard shells], because of low demand and price.”
At Budgam however, the pastoral image continues to be deceptive.
Even though many almond growers are presently busy gathering and transporting almonds in burlap bags and nylon jars for market consumption, the festive farming look conveniently hides the fact that Kashmir is losing its blooming almond fields—thick and fast!
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