Despite a good cherry crop in Kashmir, for the second consecutive season, mobility and market restrictions imposed by the pandemic have put the harvest festivity into the dark.
Peeping through the dense branches, Septuagenarian, Ali Mohammad displays a smile while holding the juicy lobes of reddish texture at his ancestral orchard.
Harbouring hundreds of well grown cherry trees, his 12 Kanal fruit orchard on the foot hills of Gulmarg is a perfect product of human hard work and nature’s benevolence.
With snowy peaks of Tosamaidan in the background, cherry crop on these elevated lands is all set for harvest.
“It is after many years that there is a good produce,” says Ali Mohammad.
“This is our primary source of livelihood, but like few past seasons, lack of market for our produce is a big concern,” rues Ali.
The markets face constant closures due to continuous lockdowns imposed because of the devastating pandemic.
Cherry farmers from this picturesque Tangamarg area, one of the major contributor to cherry production in the valley are in blues from the closure of all tourism activity.
Seconding his father, Mushtaq Ahmad, voices the same concern. “Despite a good yield this year, the demand is on decline,” Mushtaq adds. “The market for our cherry is actually tourism driven. Both local excursionists and tourists used to buy fresh cherry boxes from growers directly while passing through these orchards enroute to picnic spots. But this year, closure of picnic spots and health resorts due to the pandemic has led to negligible demand of the crop grown locally,” explains Mushtaq.
According to an official from the Department of Horticulture, Cherry from Harwan, Tangmarg and Shopian is one of the best qualities produced in the region. Since cherry grows well on elevated lands mostly on the foothills, the geographic location of the areas makes it a blooming abode of the fruit.
Awal Number, Mishri, Double and Italy, all varieties are produced from these areas.
In 2018, the Cherry production in the valley had reached to about 12,000 metric tons, says the officer.
Mohammad Irfan, a high school drop-out from the neighboring Ferozpura hamlet, has been selling the fresh fruits to tourists at a makeshift kiosk on Srinagar-Gulmarg highway, from last many years.
“I used to earn Rs 800 to 1,000 a day by selling fresh cherry to tourists. But I am hardly able to make hundred rupees now a days,” deplores Irfan, while referring to the current closure of tourist activity in the region.
Even though most of cherry grown in the valley goes to domestic markets, some small quantity of the harvest makes it to the markets like Mumbai and Bangalore, which fetch good returns, according to growers and traders.
However for last few seasons, the sector is facing an upshot for lack of proper marketing and the timely transportation to markets outside.
According to Gulzar Ahmad, a cherry trader from Hazratbal area of Srinagar, there is a good demand for the fruit in markets outside, but the lack of affordable transportation mechanism in Kashmir is lacking.
“Only a few varieties of cherry, having slightly longer shelf life goes to Mumbai markets,” Gulzar says. “And the freight charges are too high,” he exclaims.
It costs Rs 50 to 55 to airlift one kilogram of cherry from Srinagar Airport to Mumbai. For Bangalore, the rates are Rs 75 to 80.
“How will a common grower or trader afford such a whooping transportation charge,” laments Gulzar.
“There are more varieties of cherry, far better in quality, but due to short life, we are not able to sell them in potential markets due to unaffordable airfares,” Gulzar adds.
For the last few years, Bashir Ahmad, a cherry farmer from a picturesque Mulphaq area in the outskirts of Srinagar has not been able to earn a value for his produce.
The previous year, the yield could not even fetch him the basic expenditures incurred on the orchard, Bashir says.
“This season, even if there is a demand in the market, but the returns are too low looking at the cost incurred,” adds Bashir.
Packed mostly in cardboard boxes, one kilogram of the fruit is sold at Rupees 120 to 150 in local markets. The same fruit, according to traders can be sold almost at double the price in markets outside.
But amidst inaccessibility to these markets, the common growers are left with an option to either sell their produce for low rates in local markets or supply the same to few cherry Processing and Canning plants in the valley for meagre value.
As the case load of COVID patients in the region has shown a considerable decline over the past days, the Cherry farmers in this part of Himalaya long for both the footfall of tourists and affordable passage of their yield to make a living.