Can Kashmir’s famed saffron fields turn into apple orchards?

  • IRFAN AMIN MALIK
  • Publish Date: Feb 3 2019 10:45AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 3 2019 10:45AM
Can Kashmir’s famed saffron fields turn into apple orchards?File Photo

Uneven rainfall, erratic temperatures and failure of the national saffron mission are among factors slowly luring growers to planting apple trees on the famed saffron lands of Pampore.

The production of this heritage crop of Kashmir is declining causing economic distress among the growers. The latest bad hit was the early snowfall last November, at the peak of the harvesting season badly damaging the precious crop. 

"Only 20 per cent of the crop was harvested when it snowed, while 80 per cent was covered under the weight of snow. The delicate petals of saffron flowers broke which damaged the flowers permanently and inflicted huge losses to the growers," said Sajad Ahmed Pampuri, a saffron grower.

Saffron growers now say cultivating the prized spice is full of challenges compared to growing apples many of them see as a simple deal.   

Over the last few decades the saffron fields are slowly beginning to undergo the same transformation as paddy land, a lot of which has become apple orchards particularly during the last decade. The reasons are economic in the end, as saffron growers, like some paddy cultivators before them, see managing apple orchards as less labour intensive and yielding more income. 

Kashmir is one of the three prominent saffron cultivating places in the world and the quality of its saffron produce is considered the finest for its exotic aroma and flavour. However, Iran accounts for about 70 per cent of total world production, but the quality of Kashmiri saffron surpasses it.

One of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron is being cultivated in Pampore for around the 2500 years. About 90 per cent of the exotic spice grown in Kashmir is cultivated in this area. 

But its production is on a steady decline due to various reasons including scanty rainfall when the crop needs it, lack of water, fungal diseases, land encroachments and urbanisation.

“Any farmer would want high yield to make good profits. Saffron growing was earlier a cheerful task but now there are only challenges followed by a massive loss," said GhulamMohiuddin Mir, a saffron grower in Drangbal of Pampore.

Mir is now thinking of turning his patch of 5 kanal saffron lands into an apple orchard. "If the grim scenario of saffron growing continues during the current year I will plant apple trees to make an orchard."

The average annual production of apple in the state is 17 lakh metric tons. According to the Economic Survey of 2017, apples worth Rs 6,500 crore were exported that year. In 2018, the production increased despite early snowfall in November when the fruit is plucked ripe.

Apple orchards have made many erstwhile paddy cultivators prosperous. Some saffron growers see themselves next in line to it rich again by transforming saffron lands into high density apple orchards.

But experts say that would mean a disaster.

"First we will lose our heritage crop which is our brand internationally. Then apple growing will not be viable option on a saffron land,” said Mubashir Hassan, an agricultural expert, adding that even paddy land is not feasible for growing apple. 

But for saffron growers challenges remain.

Erratic weather and incessant rainfall sometimes during spring and summer seasons leads to over-irrigation of the corm causing its rot and fungal attacks.

Besides these challenges Kashmiri saffron also faces tough competition from other international varieties – apart from sale of fake saffron in the market.

"It is a collective failure. No one is ready to change the grim scenario of saffron here," says RakibYousuf, a water resources engineer.

In 2010-11, the union government tried to come to the rescue of saffron growers by launching the National Saffron Mission, a project that included subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides, and plans to install borewells and other irrigation facilities, such as sprinkler systems. 

But the Mission, many say failed.

Eight years later it has not suceeded to provide adequate water facility for the saffron growers and most of the borewells made under the Mission are defunct.

"The scarcity of water has declined the saffron production. The government has also failed to provide abundant water facility. The government installed tube-wells and laid pipes for sprinkle irrigation, but most of them are also defunct," said Mohammad Yousuf, another saffron grower of AndroosaKhrew.

"When tubewells didn’t run for months together, thieves looted the equipments and other items." 

Abdul MajeedWani, the president of saffron growers association says mounting challenges are adding to the miseries of the farmers.

However, he ruled saffron fields turning into apple orchards. 

"There is no question of turning precious saffron fields into apple orchards. There is a mafia behind this, who want to destroy our heritage crop. I hope they will not be successful," Wani Kashmir Ink.