SHIMLA: Climate change has literally brought the Rs 3,500-crore fruit economy of Himachal Pradesh under the cosh.
Apple growers say their business, which constitutes 89 per cent of the total fruit economy, is not as fruitful as it used to be a decade ago.
Horticulture experts believe changes in precipitation patterns like frequent extreme weather events both in summer and winter have impacted the taste, colour and texture of apples.
Also, fluctuation in temperatures from December to February, for example, have been preponing flowering in apple trees in spring and altering the timing of key plant physiological events like early bud break and full bloom period.
If weather fluctuations continue in this manner, there will be changes in the fruit's taste, colour and size. The number of apples produced will also hit. This trend is currently noticeable in orchards located at an altitude of 1500 metres, SP Bhardwaj, a former joint director at the YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, said.
The weather impact is not as severe for orchards in ranges located above 2,000 metres.
Himachal Pradesh is one of India's major apple-producing regions, with more than 90 per cent of the produce going to the domestic market.
New low-chilling and early maturing varieties are being introduced in the lower-altitude hills.
Ageing orchards too are taking a toll on apple production .
Ramesh Chauhan, an apple-grower in Kotkhai, 65 km from Shimla, said the reason for large variation in the crop yield in recent years is the weather.
"Sometimes there is a prolonged winter spell and sometimes a lack of adequate rainfall when the crop is ripening (between May and June). These fluctuations are almost a regular feature now, leaving an adverse impact on our incomes," Chauhan said.
The fruit production was 4.06 lakh tonnes in 2018-19 (till December 2018) against 5.65 lakh tonnes in 2017-18, said Himachal Pradesh's economic survey for 2018-19.
The apple production during the same period was 3.60 lakh tonnes against 4.47 lakh tonnes in 2017-18, the normal yield.
Farmers and trade insiders say the overall apple production in the state has been erratic since 2010.
The apple yield in Himachal Pradesh was at an all-time high of 8.92 lakh tonnes in 2010-11. Another fruitful year till date was 2015-16, with a production of 7.77 lakh tonne of apples.
About 3.7 crore boxes of apples are expected to be produced in the state this year.
Besides Shimla, most of the apple cultivation is concentrated in the districts of Kullu, Mandi, Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba.
Surveys by the state Horticulture Department show the productivity of apple ranges from six to 11.5 tonnes per hectare in the state, in comparison to 35 to 40 tonnes per hectare in more advanced countries.
The area under apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh has increased from 3,025 hectares in 1960-61 to 112,500 hectares in 2017-18, which constitutes more than 50 per cent of the total area under fruit cultivation.
To rejuvenate the apple plantation and for the long-term development of the horticulture sector, a $171.50-million (Rs 1,134 crore) World Bank-funded project is being implemented in the state through the Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Development Society.
Till date, an expenditure of Rs 91.60 crore has been incurred on various activities, Horticulture Minister Mohinder Thakur informed the Assembly in a written reply on August 23.
The duration of the project is seven years and will last till 2022-23.