Farming

Farmers are axing almond trees for apples in Kashmir

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A springtime blooming almond orchard in Kashmir. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Almond growers owning swathes of land in the Karewas of Pulwama have largely shifted to apple farming from 2010 to 2022.  

Herdsman Mushtaq Ahmad is a woeful witness of a sweeping change in Kashmir Karewas. In the pastures of Pulwama, this pensive propel laments over the decadal landscape shift driven by the fear of porcupine and the quest for a cash-crop in the valley.

These Karewas, he mused, wielded full bloom once upon a time. “And that time,” he hastily added, “wasn’t a long time ago.” 

Mushtaq would arrive in the highlands of Pulwama along with his flock and spend days there in peace. “The feeling would be heavenly,” he recalled, “but now, it’s a painful memory.” 

Behind his anguish is a precipitous decline of almond production of Kashmir. Farmers are axing their almond trees and replacing them with apple trees “for a secure future”. Almond growers owning swathes of land in the Karewas of Pulwama have largely shifted to apple farming from 2010 to 2022.  

This agrarian alteration has transformed pastures where people like Mushtaq would sustain his living. But while the herdsmen are making uneasy peace with the change, the orchardists are blaming the horticulture department’s apathy, cheap market prices, climate change and attacks from porcupines for the apple shift.

“I was forced to axe my almond trees in 2014 because I couldn’t recover the production price,” said Showkat Ahmad, an orchardist from Pulwama’s Payer village. “Despite doing almond farming for more than 50 years, my father was never guided about farming techniques. Less awareness among farmers and the non-seriousness of the horticulture department toward almond farming has increased the quest for apple farming in Kashmir.” 

Due to this farming shift, Kashmir—housing some notable almond varieties like Shalimaar, Makdoon, Waris and Kagzi—is fast losing its homegrown brand now.

A forlorn field paving way to apple saplings. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Almonds are mostly grown in Kashmir’s Pulwama and Budgam districts. As per official data available till 2011, the almond production decreased to 6360 metric tons from 16, 537 metric tons. The land used for almond production during this period dwindled from 16,418 hectares to 7,107 hectares. 

A decade later, the production as well as the land under almonds has further fallen due to the rat race for the cash crop. 

“Growers shouldn’t be blamed for the apple crop quest,” said Mohammad Akram Mir, a grower from Pulwama. “I used to grow almonds on my entire 20 kanals of land till 2014, but now I grow them only on 4 kanals of land. People couldn’t afford the expenses of fertilizers and it compelled us to shift to apple farming.” 

Many farmers even complain that the almond trees become soft targets of porcupines during the winter period. These animals peel the barks of the tree and damage it within one year. “The attacks from porcupines have made us sick,” Akram continued. “It takes 15 years for a tree to grow fully. It hurts to see them peeled by porcupines overnight. It makes us hopeless. We farmers are dependent on our trees. They support our main income.” 

Mindful of these attacks, Chief Horticulture officer of Pulwama, Mukesh K. Sharma has urged the almond growers to cover the stem of trees with wire mesh and jute bags as a shield. “But I understand this issue is beyond porcupine,” Sharma said. “The department is on its toes to revive the almond production, but as of now we’ve no proper data/figure available on how many people have shifted to apple farming.” 

The department is organizing awareness camps about new farming techniques and the high-density almond plantation for farmers, Sharma said. “We also have instructed the farmers to make cooperative societies to get the proper price of their almonds,” he said. “Last year the price of almonds lingered at Rs 600 per kilogram. We anticipate the same price this year as the blossom was better than in previous years.”

Apple orchard in progress in Kashmir. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

As an early-season crop, almond blooms before apple and other fruits in Kashmir. Since it grows in dry Karewas, the fruit relies on precipitation. 

“If there’s a heavy downpour or gusts at the time of flowering, the flowers of the trees are adversely affected, which is a massive challenge for farmers,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad, a horticulture expert. 

“Almond trees require water at a critical stage. Any irrigation fluctuation will impact the quality and the amount of almonds. Dearth of irrigation facilities in Kashmir Karewas is also one of the reasons for less and cheap production.”

What’s equally taxing the native crop is the opening of World Trade, with India lessening the tax duties on imports. The traders import almonds easily from other countries to India and start trade with it. “Due to the reduction of taxes on foreign almonds,” said Shabir Khan, a dry-fruit merchant from Srinagar, “the native almonds have lost their value and market.”

Meanwhile, in the Karewas of Pulwama, herdsman Mushtaq is still wondering about the change consuming one of a prominent crop of Kashmir. 

“It’s sad to see this shift,” he rues. “At the end of the day, it feels like another obituary in Kashmir.” 

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