Shimla, Jan 30 (IANS) A thick blanket of snow covering the apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh has brought hopes of a bountiful crop this season among growers after two years of less than normal yield.
Last year, over 20 million boxes of apples of 20 kg each were harvested in the state - 20 percent less than the normal yield of 25 million boxes.
This month's snow, though delayed, has increased the prospects of a good and healthy apple crop, state horticulture department director Gurdev Singh told IANS.
He said areas of upper Shimla, which accounted for 80 percent of the state's total apple production, have seen more than three feet of snow.
Apples are the mainstay of Himachal's economy, with more than 200,000 families engaged in the fruit's cultivation. The apple industry is worth over Rs.2,000 crore.
Gopal Mehta, a prominent apple grower in Kothgarh in Shimla district, told IANS: "Plentiful snow will sufficiently increase the moisture content in the soil and help the apple plants, which are in dormancy these days, to get sufficient nutrients during summer".
Experts say snow also helps maintain the minimum chilling period for an orchard, which ranges between 1,000 and 1,600 hours.
S.P. Bhardwaj, former joint director of Dr. Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan, said the apple plants still needed chilling.
"A healthy crop requires chilling in this point in time with temperature hovering at seven degrees Celsius or less," he said.
The recent snowfall will give sufficient time to the apple plants to remain in dormancy and lower the risk of premature bud breaking and flowering in mid-March, he added.
But field reports say the snow has also destroyed apple plants in some areas of Shimla.
Government officials said it was still too early to calculate the impact, but the damage could be seen more in orchards in Thanedar, Kotgarh and Kharapathar.
Horticulture Minister Vidya Stokes, an apple grower herself, told IANS that it would take them some more days to assess the actual damage due to the Jan 17-19 snowfall.
In 2010, there was a record production of 44.6 million boxes. But the figure fell to 14 million boxes the next year.
According to the horticulture department, the per hectare yield of apple ranged from five to seven tonnes, compared to 50 to 60 tonnes in European countries.
Weather is a day-to-day battle for apple growers. Sometimes, the snow is plentiful, but there is a prolonged dry spell in monsoon that dwarfs the fruit, leading to a decline in overall production.
Weather vagaries such as hails, heavy rains, strong winds and excessive heat puncture hopes of the apple growers of a good harvest.
According to estimates, hailstorms damage 20-30 percent of vegetable and fruit crops in the state every year.
Apple constitutes about 81 percent of the state's total fruit production. The harvesting generally begins in July and continues till November.
According to the 2011-12 Economic Survey, the area under apple cultivation has increased from 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 101,485 hectares in 2010-11.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)