Himachal ‘Newtons’ quit jobs to grow apples and look up with technology

Aasheesh Mehta, 32, was picking the first batch of apples of the season on his farm in Kotgarh when he received a call from an international magazine to work as a music journalist. At the time, Aasheesh ran a popular metal music information website and performed as a guitarist in several cities. As he stood in his rubber boots on the damp ground between rows of apple stalks, Aasheesh had a career choice to make. For him, the decision had never been so clear.

Aasheesh is one of many young people in Himachal Pradesh who are now dedicated to growing apples full time. From architecture to engineering, many have given up corporate jobs and lucrative opportunities to return to the valley for agricultural purposes. In the process, young farmers use innovative skills to bring about agricultural reforms through technology and international exposure. The heart of Himachal Pradesh’s economy lies in the production of apples. More than 2 lakh people are involved in apple farming and the apple industry is worth nearly Rs 6,000 crore.

In the early 1900s, an American Samuel Evan Stokes, later known as Satyanand Stokes, brought the first apple seedlings from Philadelphia to Kotgarh where he worked for a Christian missionary.

The very first apple variety that was planted is known as Red Delicious and it ushered in a new era for the state. Local farmers began investing in apple orchards that would produce yields within 7 to 10 years. Samuel’s daughter-in-law, Vidya Stokes, a household name in the state, represented the country in tournament hockey and became an MP eight times.

The history of the apple that has shaped the identity of the inhabitants of the region is an important factor that has prompted their return to their roots. “We have seen how hard our fathers and grandfathers worked for our farms. There was a time when there were no roads and things were brought in manually. In many ways, it’s still the same. We have a sense of responsibility that we owe to these lands,” said Aasheesh Mehta.

Kunal Chauhan (34), a resident of Kotkhai, is a computer application graduate who also briefly worked in Dell technologies. He returned to his 50 bheega farms nearly a decade ago due to family circumstances, but since then has spent several years studying apple growing techniques. Kunal makes annual visits to Italy to interact with farmers and learn innovative methods. Regions like South Tyrol in Italy have one of the largest apple producers in the world.

Kunal and Aasheesh together run a horticultural consulting firm called Treetch that helps farmers set up orchards and provide landscaping and trellis solutions. There is a shift in focus from traditional farming methods towards high density planting (HDP). In the new configuration, there is a higher plant population per unit, lower input cost and a shorter period for fruit growth.

“Like any other field, we have to keep pace. Over the years, the rate of return has declined. There is a specific period for fruit ripening, and in the traditional method it is longer. With new techniques, fewer resources are deployed. We have set up dozens of HDP farms as more and more people accept them,” Kunal Chauhan said.

In a typical HDP farm, poles almost 5 meters high are placed in a row above which hail nets can be placed evenly. Seedlings are planted along the row with clips attached to the tree stem to prevent it from bending. The layout is mechanized and the appearance reflects the orchards of South Tyrol. The spaces between the posts are left as they are and can be used for working and moving equipment and, most importantly, for sun penetration, which is a crucial ingredient for rapid growth.

Another aspect of HDP is that the labor required for growing and harvesting throughout the year is much less than that required on traditional farms. In a large one-acre plantation nestled on flat land in Kotkhai, Kunal Chauhan says only one person runs the farm.

“Any business promoted by young people encounters resistance. There is an attachment people have for old orchards and trees, and tearing them down to build something new is a concept people are still trying to understand. They often feel like it’s unnecessary. But new technologies can save resources and get good returns in the market,” said Kunal Chauhan.

Over the past four years, more than 120 farmers have opted for HDP solutions from Kunal Chauhan and his team. Workshops for more than 500 farmers were organized by the team to raise their awareness of HDP methods and techniques. Most farms now prefer the Gala variety over Red Delicious. Gala requires 600 hours of refrigeration, 400 less than Red Delicious, and is the most common fruit to reach the supermarket. The team, in fact, has a license for the Italian variety Dark Baron Gala and anyone across the country will have to import the tree through the team.

Siddharth (34), a Kotgarh resident and generational farmer, plans to convert his traditional orchard to HDP. According to an initial estimate, the cost of converting his 5 bheega lands will be around Rs 25-30 lakh. Due to the shorter gestation period for maturation, Shantanu will recoup the cost of the conversion in five years. “There are several market factors which also impact the sale. At present, apples are sold at Rs 300 kg in metropolitan cities, while farmers receive only Rs 40 to 55 per kg. Input prices have risen so much that there will come a time when farmers abandon their orchards. This is our desperate effort to stay afloat,” Siddharth said.

A nursery named Griba has also sprung up in the Kotkhai region which imports trees and seeds from Italy for HP farmers. Vishal Baekta (33), who has an engineering background and is part of the Griba team with Aasheesh and others, emphasizes market research for better returns. “The HPD format is commercially viable. The Indian market is obsessed with the color and appearance of the apple. In the context of innovation, there must be different varieties that involve mutation. There are people studying it and it’s a long process. But with the right technology.

According to estimates, the state produces about 10 tons per hectare using the traditional method. In the HDP method, 60 tonnes per hectare is an achievable goal within the next 4-5 years. In terms of planting, there can be around 300 trees per bheega in the HDP setup, compared to 16-20 large trees in the traditional setup.

Area apple growers describe a common theme that has been prevalent over the years. They allege that successive governments have failed the cause of apple growers. The lack of cold storage facilities, lower purchase prices compared to competitive market rates, fewer subsidies and the absence of a concrete import policy are problems that have affected farmers. Recently, a large-scale protest was organized by apple growers in Kullu, Sirmaur, Shimla and other apple belts against rising GST and rising input costs. The issue is political.

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For young people, the idea of ​​making apple farmers self-sufficient and self-sufficient is one of their main long-term goals. In the coming times, farmers will also seek to explore B2C options to increase their profits. “The reality on the ground and the level at which policies are made are two different worlds. From our side, we try to give the farmer an option to maximize his production and in the end, only he will benefit. The industry faces competition from Kashmir as it has suitable topography. We cannot rely on governments for interventions, so we are taking matters into our own hands,” says Vishal Baekta.

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