As a first-comer among the locally grown fruits, Kashmiri strawberry’s bumper crop is spreading smiles despite mobility and market blues.
Sexagenarian orchardist Ghulam Mohammad Dar’s farm outings have turned festive in the second crippling season of Covid.
In his postcard village called Gusoo nestled at the serene foothills of Mahadev Mountain range, Dar’s sprawling strawberry farm has become a bumper cash crop sight in pandemic.
Set in a perfect pattern, the long rows of his farm running through the vast stretches grows thousands of strawberry plants. With each shrub spotting the conspicuous, glossy and conical red lobes, the view packed with juicy fruit is enough a reagent to induce the salivation in the mouth.
But as Dar is reaping the season’s first delicate fruit with the sense of delight, the fruitful summer has already made the fretful spring forgettable experience for the tanned farmer sporting grey beard and Khan-dress.
“These are not merely the lobes of fresh juice, but a receipt of much anticipated cash,” exclaims Dar, while holding a bunch of ripe strawberry in his hand.
Dar’s village situated at Srinagar outskirts in Hazratbal Tehsil alone produces about a 50 meteric tons, as per official figures, out of about 1300 metric tons of strawberry produced annually in Kashmir.
“Strawberry is a cash crop,” Dar continues.
“Returns in terms of money are enough to compensate for the toil one puts in growing these fruits. Under normal conditions, this fruit farming proves to be a good source of income.”
Strawberry as the first fruit of Kashmir gets ready for consumption by mid-May.
Shortlived and delicate, the fruit has a very small shelf life demanding quick harvest and timely transportation to market.
Though this farming is currently a thriving primary activity at many places in the valley, the surging second wave of pandemic has put the growers in a fix.
“Closure of markets due to lockdown has dashed any hopes of good return like previous season,” Dar says.
Harbouring the same thoughts of delight and distress, Dilshada Jan, 47, along with her 21-year-old daughter Shaista and 18-year-old son Yasir is plucking the fresh and glossy strawberries from her newly-made strawberry farm.
Once done with plucking, Shaista empties the fruit-laden basket on a wide polythene sheet in front of her brother, who packs them in bowls.
Their mother, meanwhile, keeps longing for the sunny days ahead and the opening of the markets.
“This season, a lot is at stake for my family,” Dilshada says. “I had to come out myself along with my children for the farming as my husband is not keeping well.”
A delay of a day or a strong rainfall is enough to cause large scale damage to the fruit, Dilshada says, alluring to erratic weather conditions and prevailing Corona curfew in the valley.
“There’s every possibility that ripened fruit may rot if not quickly delivered to the market,” fears Yasir.
“Though some dealers lately did send their vehicles for the collection of the packed fruit, but the demand so far is very less.”
Mainly sold in local markets, Kashmiri strawberry usually fetches good returns to the growers.
“At peak season previously, I would sell the fruit for the price as high as Rs 300 per kilogram. But this season, if it fetches Rs 100 per kilogram, that would be a grand favour,” says Ajaz Ahmad, a strawberry dealer from Parimpora area of Srinagar.
However, except for the prevailing conditions, there’s a lucrative market for this fruit in the valley.
With no use of pesticides and little use of fertilizers, Kashmiri strawberry has an organic tone.
Strawberries, an agricultural officer explains, do not require pesticides as there’s a negligible insect or fungal activity during the spring season in Kashmir for the cold temperatures.
Meanwhile at Gusoo, Dar’s fellow villager, Manzoor Ahmad says strawberry farming has a tremendous potential for both growth and income.
“My five kanals of land under strawberry crop fetch me a decent amount annually,” says Manzoor, a fulltime teacher and partime farmer.
“If steps are taken to airlift it to outside markets and increase its shelf life, the strawberry can emerge as a major cash crop for the valley.”