New winds are blowing over apple orchards in India. If farmers in North Indian states are adopting a new way of growing apples, their counterparts in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have begun to experiment with what has so far been considered a fruit of temperate climes.
It all began when low chilling varieties of apples began to be introduced in the mid hills of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir to cope with rising temperatures; the change in climate had pushed the apple growing belts of the Himalayas higher and higher. In the last two decades or so, apple orchards in the lower hills have been replaced by plums and pomegranates, which thrive at lower altitudes.
But soon enough, Himalayan farmers learnt about low-chill varieties of apples developed in the West. They realised that certain varieties of apples can grow happily even if there is no winter snow. As against the requirement of atleast 1,000 chilling hours (at temperature lower than 7 degree C), newer spur varieties can grow with just 300-400 chilling hours. Once the trees requiring low chilling, received farmers' approval, they began planting them. It was then only a matter of time before some innovative farm scientists thought of bringing these to parts of the southern states that enjoy moderate climate. These have been embraced by farmers like Krishna Shetty, who has been experimenting on his farm for the last three years. “Farmers in Karnataka are growing apples on an experimental basis,” said Shetty, who is convinced that commercial cultivation is possible. “Successful trials have even been held in Nasik in Maharashtra and farmers there are ready to try commercial cultivation now.”
Apart from Shetty, farmers in Karnataka's Mangalore, Tumkur, Uppinangady, Kodagu, Chikamaglur and Shivamogga dstricts have experienced varying success in growing apple trees on their farms. The Regional Agriculture Research Station in Chintapally near Vishakapatnam is also experimenting with apple cultivation in the cooler parts of Andhra Pradesh. Most varieties grown in southern Indian districts are those that are found in Himachal Pradesh.
Areas where temperatures do not dip below 12 degrees C or rise over 40 degree C are suitable to grow apples in the southern statesDr Jayant Kumar, Scientist
Scientists Dr Charanjit Parmar and Dr Jayant Kumar from Manali provided these low chilling apple trees to Karnataka farmers. Dr Kumar recalls that they were spurred into action after a visit to Indonesia, a tropical country, where they saw farmers growing not one, but two crops of apple each year. “The trick is to ensure that the plant does not enter a dormancy stage, which the apple trees in the hills experience during winter,” said Dr Kumar. “Areas where temperatures do not dip below 12 degrees C or rise over 40 degree C are suitable to grow apples in the southern states. Sadly, the administration in the southern states are not yet encouraging, and individual farmers are trying apple cultivation on their own.”
Old apple, new tree
Even as apple orchards make inroads into the South, the northern hill states are adopting a new style of cultivation. For decades, commerical apples have been traditionally grown on tall, broad trees. In a shift from this pattern, cultivars are now planted at distances of three feet. Short, spindly and supported by wire trellis, these trees look like bushes, and bear heavy fruit crops on spurs. Most new plantations are in the mid hills where farmers grow the low chilling varieties in tight rows. The trees are deliberately kept dwarfed so as to channel the nutrition for the development of the fruit and not in growing a thick trunk and branches.
Vikram Rawat, a banker with a passion for growing apples, pioneered this technique in Himachal Pradesh nearly a decade ago. Back when he started his experiment with clonal root stocks, local farmers and horticulturist laughed him off. Today, this is the most popular technique to grow apples the world over. “In India, we are 40 years behind the rest of the apple growing world, not only in terms of adopting latest technology but also in per hectare production,” said Rawat.
As opposed to traditional large trees, between 1,000-1,400 of the new dwarf varieties can be grown on one acre of land in the high density farming system. The immediate benefit of high density planting on clonal root stocks is the comparatively shorter gestation period. Given that these dwarf plants begin to fruit from the third year onwards, there has been a huge interest in high density apple cultivation in the last three to four years, including from the state. “Traditional farming has long gestation period. It fetches results after 15 years,” said Rawat. “High density means early crop production, which keeps the growers interested in farming.”