Scanty rains diminish Himachal apples' size

Shimla, Aug 20 (IANS) The apple of Himachal Pradesh's eye has diminished in its appeal - and size.

The apple varieties currently hitting the market from the state are said to be smaller in size with compromised quality owing to scanty rains when the crop was maturing. These account for a major chunk of the total production.

But horticulture experts say the apples that will start arriving in the market in September will be crunchy, luscious and fully ripe too.

The state horticulture department estimates bumper production of over 35 million boxes (of 20 kg each), the mainstay of the state's economy, after two consecutive years of less than normal yield of 25 million boxes.

"Prolonged dry spells in July hamper the normal growth of the apple ripening and attaining optimum size in certain pockets located in the low and middle hills. At that time the moisture was not sufficient to help the apple crop attain the optimum size (85 to 110 mm) and to get the true colour," S.P. Bhardwaj, former joint director at the Solan-based Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, told IANS.

He said even a majority of the growers have harvested the crop 15 to 20 days before it actually attained maturity as the demand was initially high.

"The overall yield was good, but the size of the apple was too small," said Neeraj Begta, a grower in the Rohru tehsil of Shimla district.

He said the weather was congenial throughout the season except July when the crop was maturing. "Now the area is again getting rains, but they are of no use," Begta added.

Bhardwaj, however, said superior grades like Royal Delicious, Red Chief and Super Chief are yet to hit the market.

"Though higher elevations, where the high grade crop is ripening, are still getting less rainfall, the prevailing low temperature will help retaining soil moisture and this is good for the overall development of the fruit," he said.

Trade representatives say harvesting is in full swing in the middle hills, while it's almost over in the lower altitudes (less than 6,000 ft), which had a record production this year.

In the higher reaches, where the crop is moderate, fruit plucking will begin by Sep 15 and will continue till November.

The meteorological office here said the rainfall was 29 percent deficit in July But 143 percent in excess in June, the highest in 10 years.

"From Aug 1 to 19 there is a rain deficiency of two percent. But in Shimla district, there is a shortfall of 24 percent," Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological office, said.

Shimla district alone accounts for 80 percent of the total apple production.

Horticulture department officials say till date over nine million boxes of apple have been sold off - compared to 3.6 million boxes last year - when over 20.4 million boxes were harvested. It was just 13.6 million boxes in 2011.

Horticulture is a vital sector in the state's economy as it generates more than Rs.3,200 crore annually.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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