Climate change has literally brought under the weather the Rs 3,500-crore fruit economy of Himachal Pradesh.
Apple growers say their business, which alone constitutes 89 per cent of the total fruit economy, is not as fruitful as it used to be a decade ago. Climate trends impact its overall production.
Horticulture experts though believe changes in precipitation patterns like frequent extreme weather events both in summer and winter have overall impacted taste, colour and texture of apples.
Also, fluctuation in temperatures from December to February, for example, have been proponing flowering in apple trees in spring and also altering the timing of key plant physiological events like early bud break and full bloom period.
If weather fluctuation continues to progress, there will be changes in fruit's quality like taste, colour and size and also overall productivity and this trend is currently noticeable in orchards located at an altitude of 1,500 metres, S.P. Bhardwaj, a former joint director at the Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, told IANS.
The weather impact is lesser for orchards in the ranges located above 2,000 metres.
Himachal Pradesh is one of India's major apple producing regions, with more than 90 per cent of the produce going to the domestic market.
New low-chilling and early maturing varieties are being introduced in the lower-altitude hills.
The other reasons for taking a toll on apple production is ageing orchards.
Ramesh Chauhan, an apple-grower in Kotkhai, 65 km from Shimla, said the reason for large variation in crop yield in recent years is the weather.
"Sometimes there is a prolonged winter spell and sometimes a lack of adequate rainfall when the crop is ripening (between May and June). These fluctuations are almost a regular feature now, leaving an adverse impact on our incomes," Chauhan said.
The fruit production was 4.06 lakh tonnes in 2018-19 (till December 2018) against 5.65 lakh tonne in 2017-18, said Himachal Pradesh's economic survey for 2018-19.
The apple production during the same period was 3.60 lakh tonnes against 4.47 lakh tonne in 2017-18, the normal yield.
Farmers and trade insiders say the overall apple production in the state has been erratic since 2010.
The apple yield in Himachal Pradesh was at an all-time high of 8.92 lakh tonnes in 2010-11. Another fruitful year till date was 2015-16, with a production of 7.77 lakh tonne of apples.
About 3.7 crore boxes of apples are being estimated in the state this year.
A 2016 study, "Impact of climate change on apple production in India: A review', by researchers of the Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry says 20 years ago snowfall was a regular phenomenon in Himachal Pradesh.
Kullu is well known for apple cultivation, but due to inadequate snowfall and improper chilling hours it has affected its cultivation.
The traditional apple farming is under stress due to changes in climate. Symptoms like earlier blooming and harvest time are already seen.
At mid hills apple scab and at low hills pest attack on apple crops are considered as the indicators of climate change.
The study blames change in land use practices to climate change. In many areas the land under apple farming was replaced for production of coarse grains, seasonal vegetables and other horticulture species.
Development of low chilling cultivars, crops tolerant to high temperature and resistant to pests and diseases judicious management of land use resources are the main strategies to meet the climate challenges.
Sounding the alarm, Harjeet Singh, ActionAid's global lead on climate change, told IANS: "Farmers in India are facing some of the worst impacts of erratic and extreme weather patterns caused by climate change."
Studies have shown that increased warming, hail storms and unseasonal rains and untimely snowfall lowered the productivity and quality of apple production in Himachal Pradesh.
He said similar challenges are faced by fruit growers across the country, but their issues are yet to get sufficient attention from the scientific community as well as policymakers.
"The government needs to look into the current and future trends of climate change and devise a comprehensive strategy to tackle weather vagaries," Singh added.
Himachal Pradesh's apple boom is credited to Samuel Evans Stokes (later named Satyanand Stokes), an American missionary who first introduced the high-quality apples in the mid-altitude hills in the second decade of the previous century.
From a small orchard in Kotgarh, Stokes promoted apple cultivation in other areas too, especially in upper Shimla that currently alone accounts for 80 per cent of state's total apple production.
Before opting for apple cultivation, the locals were planting mainly wheat, maize and pulses.
Currently, the Kotgarh-Thanedar area is among those with the highest per capita income in Southeast Asia. The locals have diversified the apple crop by growing cherries, apricots, almonds and nectarines.
Besides Shimla, most of the apple cultivation is concentrated in the districts of Kullu, Mandi, Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba.
Surveys of the state Horticulture Department show the productivity of apple ranges from six to 11.5 tonnes per hectare in the state, in comparison to 35 to 40 tonnes per hectare in more advanced countries.
The area under apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh has increased from 3,025 hectares in 1960-61 to 112,500 hectares in 2017-18, which constitutes more than 50 per cent of the total area under fruit cultivation.
To rejuvenate the apple plantation and the long-term development of the horticulture sector, the $171.50 million (Rs 1,134 crore) World Bank-funded project is being implemented in the state through the Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Development Society.
Till date, the expenditure of Rs 91.60 crore has been incurred on various activities, Horticulture Minister Mohinder Thakur informed the Assembly in a written reply on August 23.
The duration of the project is seven years and will last till 2022-23.