Upsetting the apple cart in Himachal

Artificial Intelligence-linked apple production is disrupting the sector

May 10, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 01:46 am IST

Trees in apple orchards are covered with anti-hail nets to prevent crop damage from hail storms.

Trees in apple orchards are covered with anti-hail nets to prevent crop damage from hail storms. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

The use of high-density varieties of apple and artificial intelligence (AI) in production, it is widely considered, has benefits such as increased capital investment and mechanisation, but it is also causing a major disruption in the industry in Himachal Pradesh.

Apple production plays a major role in the State’s economy and in granting employment. Recent developments in science, technology and germination have ushered in major transformations in the sector. In 1950-1951, 500 ha of land were under apple production; this rose to 5,025 ha by 1960-61; and 1,15,016 ha by 2021-22.

Last year, the increasing cost of production and the increase in the Goods and Services Tax on cartons triggered protests in the State. The big players have already entered the market and are influencing the purchase of the crop. This unrest was one of the reasons for the party’s loss in the Assembly polls last December. The current Congress government has announced the implementation of the Agriculture Produce Market Committee and universal cartons for apple packaging.

However, the changes in production are continuing to disrupt the sector. In Gumma in the Kotkhai region, a rich farmer, Vishal Shangta, experimented with new imported varieties from a nursery in Italy. He sowed 1,500 plants over 4,000 sq m. These saplings were rootstocks. The difference between the conventional method of plantation and the new varieties is that the earlier plants would mature in 10-12 years whereas the rootstock varieties start bearing fruit in three years. The cost of planting 1,500 rootstocks is nearly ₹30 lakh, and the plantation is done in a protected environment. The cropping method is highly mechanised. Earlier, saplings were planted on hilly slopes or in fields, whereas the new ones are planted in proximity, with the base covered by artificial material to ensure that water is conserved and the growth of weeds is checked. Under this new method of cultivation, production is twice as much as what the conventional method yielded.

AI plays a pivotal role in production. Fasal, an AI Bengaluru-based company which has investors from Singapore and Australia, is providing the basic architecture of AI to map the soil moisture, read the IMD portal and advise the farmer on providing nutrients and water to the plant. The apple grower from Gumma showed me the app to explain the health of his plants. Fasal collates all the data.

Professor Vijay Singh, former Vice Chancellor of Dr. Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, says the major problem with these plants is that they cannot survive without continuous water. This is because the roots of the rootstocks are shallow. On average, 10 litres of water are required for each plant every week, and the method used is drip irrigation.

These high-density varieties are making massive inroads into Himachal. Rich farmers are shifting to this form of production where the capital cost of investment varies between ₹30 lakh and ₹1 crore depending on the size of the farm. They cite the examples of China, Europe, and the U.S., where the per-hectare yield is almost five times that of India, to argue that there is no other alternative but to shift to this form of production.

But 95% of the apple farmers cannot bear the burden of this transformation. The effects of this transformation will soon start showing, explains Prof. Singh, as most of them have started tapping water legally and illegally through boring, which could disturb the ecosystem. Further, geographical and environmental variations are unpredictable. This year, unseasonal rains could severely impact production. With these variations, it is difficult to ensure a set pattern of cropping. This transformation also points to the near-complete failure of government agencies, particularly the extension centres of horticulture universities and the much-touted Krishi Vigyan Kendras. It is YouTubers who are the guiding leaders of this transformation, not faculty from universities.

The rootstock plants are not natural. Only time will tell whether they will be able to bear the effects of climate change and help the farmers. But what is known is that there is a rapid transformation from mass horticulture production to a class of rich producers.

Tikender Singh Panwar is a former elected deputy mayor of Shimla and an urban practitioner. He was also president of Himachal Kisan Sabha

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