Why Kashmir’s cherry laden trees don’t make growers happy?

At many places along the Kashmir highway from Baramulla to Anantnag, vendors with stacks of cherry boxes look expectantly at the passing vehicles to buy the perishable fruit. But they are struggling to sell even at discount rate of 100 per box. Meanwhile, the crop is going bad as the Covid-19 lockdown has ensured it can’t even be transported to markets outside J&K. writes Riyaz Wani

This had forced the fruit growers of Kashmir on May 31 to make a fervent appeal to people in Kashmir to consume the local cherries and strawberries in the absence of the transport to ferry these to markets outside the union territory.
“The general public of J&K are requested to kindly prefer to consume cherry and other local fruits so that fruit industry of the Valley could survive and 10 lakh families of the Valley which are directly or indirectly connected will not face any hardships of their livelihood,” Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers cum Dealers Union and the New Kashmir Fruit Association said in a joint statement.
Kashmir has been under a largely uninterrupted lockdown since August 2019 that, alongside every other sector of the economy, has hit the fruit industry hard. Horticulture is spread across 1.87 lakh acres of land earns about 6500 crores for the region. It also, directly and indirectly, employs three million people.  But the lack of labour to pick the crop and absence of transportation led to a significant amount of produce rotting on the trees. According to a recent estimate, 80,000 metric tons of apple continues to be under  Controlled Atmosphere storage in the Valley.
Though cherry and strawberries are a small component of the horticulture produce, it is a highly perishable fruit. Kashmir produces 13000 to 15000 metric tons of cherry and it is worth 150 crores in the market. With mandis and markets closed due to lockdown, the farmers fear that the fruit could go bad causing a huge loss. Cherry is the first crop of the Kashmir’s horticulture sector and its harvesting begins from the mid-May.
Manzoor Ahmad Mir, a cherry grower at Lar in central Kashmir district of Ganderbal, stares at a major loss this summer. He has 12 kanals of land under cherry cultivation. He produces around 4000 boxes of cherry but is finding it difficult to sell it.
“New Delhi,  Mumbai are the major markets for our produce. But the transportation is the problem,” said Mir. “But even if we could manage to transport the fruit up to New Delhi, lack of consumers is leading to less demand and less prices. The lockdown has ensured that people do not visit markets”.
Mir, however, lamented the loss of the “lucrative market” in Mumbai due to lack of viable transportation. “We used to ship cherry to Mumbai through air and railways, that is not possible now,” he said. “We used to get a rate of 130-140 for each box of cherry. This helped us make good profit. No longer”.
In comparison, cherry boxes fetch close to 100 in New Delhi. Now lack of consumers and, in turn, that of buyers is bringing the rates down. “At  Srinagar fruit mandi we get just 40-50 per box. With this meagre amount, we can’t even break even,” Mir said.
Strawberry is another delicate fruit that has been hit. Grown over a limited land, most of it at the village Ghoso on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir produces 400 metric tons of strawberry. With a shelf life of just two to three days, the farmers have struggled to sell it. Saqib Ahmad is one such farmer who has endured a loss of 30 percent in the hurry to sell his produce.
“Tourist to the Valley were the main buyers of strawberry. Now neither there are tourists nor enough local consumers,” Ahmad said. “Our only option was to sell the stock at the local mandi at a reduced rate. We had no choice. Had we waited a day, the stock would have perished”.
But there is still some time left for the cherry crop. Its harvesting, however, has confronted the farmers with a dilemma: They can’t transport it quickly to markets outside Kashmir and they don’t have sufficient market for its local consumption.  Kashmir produces four varieties of cherries — Awwal Number, Double, Mishri and Makhmali — with the production of the later two at around 60 percent. Mishri and Makhmali is largely exported to outside markets.
Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers cum Dealers Union wants the administration to take note and provide facilities for airlifting of cherry outside J&K. Its Chairman Bashir Ahmad Bashir, however, has been disappointed by the government’s response.
“We need immediate help but that hasn’t been forthcoming,” he said. “And meanwhile, time for the fruit is running out”.  
One alternative for the cherry growers is the canning of fruit. But the closure of the canning units in Srinagar due to non-availability of the workers has put paid to this option too.
Bashir wants the government to step in and ensure reduction in loss to the farmers. “We demand a minimum support price of Rs 100 for all varieties of cherry,” he said. “This will help us to at least break even”.
When contacted, Director Horticulture Ajaz Ahmad Bhat said that the government was doing everything to ensure the cherry crop was not wasted. The department, he said, was providing transport facility to the farmers and arranging passes for the trucks so that nobody stops them. “But there are problems in sending the produce to Mumbai,” he said. “The time is not conducive to airlift the produce there”.  
The director said the administration has also opened Mughal road for the purpose. The road remains closed during winter. “We are also in touch with the airport authorities to see if we could take the produce to Mumbai,” he said.
But the growers want the administration to act in right earnest. “Cherry crop is highly perishable. We need to take it to the market rightaway,” said Bashir. “At the same time we need to reasonably better rates to break even, let alone earn profit”.