Project Apple Unnati helps Uttarakhand farmers grow the fruit as a creeper

Twenty-five year old Aditya Rana is a Civil Services aspirant but he is game for other challenges too — for instance, demonstrating new apple-growing techniques to his family and neighbours in Arakot Village, Uttarkashi District of Uttarakhand. The new method involves growing apple as a creeper, whereby it yields results in 4-5 years.

Recalls Rana, “it was not easy to convince the family, because I had to completely clean out my old plantation and make an absolutely ( ekdum ) fresh start. It was a risk because the new method of farming was not proven as yet.”

Rana is among 100 orchard farmers who are part of the “Project Apple Unnati” initiative undertaken by Coca-Cola India in partnership with the Indo-Dutch Horticulture Technologies Private Ltd (IDHTPL) under the ‘Fruit Circular Economy’ intervention. The project provides hands-on experience to farmers on ultra-high-density plantation (UHDP) apple cultivation. Sixty-three year old Jagmohan Jwatha from Purola village of Uttarkashi District is a retired forest officer, who also decided to venture into apple farming using the new techniques. “It is never too late to learn,” says Jwatha. Also deciding to go with the winds of change are 14 farmers in Malana village in the State, who have formed a cluster — a kind of cooperative society — for their new technology produce.

The story of Poonam is slightly different, though. “Earlier we used to produce apple, but then the trees stopped bearing fruit. Recently, the boys said ‘let’s do it with the new technique, so I said, why not’.”

India has the second largest area under apple cultivation, but ranks sixth globally in production and 72nd in productivity. India imports 2,50,000 tonnes of apple annually. “Why so, was the question that we asked ourselves at Coca-Cola,” says Asim Parekh, Vice-President, Fruit Circular Economy, at Coca-Cola, India & South-West Asia.

Uttarakhand, despite its favourable climate and vast available land for greenfield apple cultivation, has a productivity of 3-4 tonnes per hectare per annum, which is half the nation’s average productivity. This is what led to the project.

Unnati Apple aims at a five-fold increase in apple production in India, primarily in Uttarakhand, by introducing good agricultural practices, focusing on UHDP, leading to a substantial increase in farmers’ income.

‘Fruit man’ swings into action

But how do you get the farmers to change their mindset, to move from a conservative method of farming to more modern technology? This was the challenge Coca-Cola and IDHTPL faced. What made their task feasible was the fact that Sudhir Chadha, Director, IDHTPL, is also known as the “fruit man” or “flower man” in the region. Chadha went from farmer to farmer speaking about the new technique, till one day a farmer said “show how it works rather than talk about it,” recalls Chadha. This led to the conceptualisation of demo farms at three different elevations – and the creation of primary demonstration orchards in high chilling region, of 6,500 to 8,000 feet elevation, medium chilling region with elevation of 5,500 to 6,500 feet, and low chilling region, with elevation of less than 5,500 feet.

Under Unnati Apple phase 1, around 3,300 farmers have been trained and 95 modern demo farms have been established in farmers’ fields, discloses Chadha. Apart from this, six demo farms have been set up as part of the project to showcase new superior varieties of apple, grown as part of ultra-high-density plantation.

To save water, the drip irrigation concept is advocated. Under UHDP cultivation, the apple plant is supported with a trellis system to help it grow as a creeper. Hail nets are put in place for protection from hailstone damage.

The demonstration farms reinforced, for the farmers, the truth of ‘seeing is believing’. These farms are used as training-cum-demonstration spots for the regional farmers to acquaint themselves with global best practices. Training in Unnati Apple techniques is conducted at a village level where trainers announce the schedule in advance, helping farmers register and benefit from the new methods.

Progressive farmers who are keen to take the programme further are offered advanced training at an Indo-Dutch facility.

The demo farms also facilitate access to enabling infrastructure, including high-yielding cultivar of planting material best suited to the Indian agro-climate, which would make apple production lucrative with a reduced payback period of around four years, explains Parekh of Coca-Cola.

With traditional orchards, the fruit emerges in seven-eight years and commercial production is from the 10th year onwards.

But creating entrepreneur-farmers is not easy, acknowledges Parekh. So, a one-time subsidy has been introduced. “Of the total requirement, 80 per cent is borne by Coca-Cola and Indo-Dutch, and 20 per cent is put in by the farmer. In fact, of the 80 per cent borne by Coca-Cola and Indo-Dutch, 80 per cent is shouldered by Coca-Cola and 20 per cent by Indo-Dutch.”

Putting money in the project also ensures the farmers’ commitment, he points out.

“We are working as the sutradhar (anchor). Our long-term strategy is to bring the market closer to the farmer,” says Parekh.

The concept seems to be similar to what Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Minister for Food Processing Industries, has been pushing for — “farm to fork” — by creating ancillary industries in and around the farmland.

The idea is to help India achieve self-sufficiency in apple production. As one of the beneficiary farmers puts it, “Earlier we were growing wood, not apples”.

But the real test is now, as those enrolled under the project prepare to hit the market with their commercial crop. They’ll be keen to push the bigger apples off the shelf for good rates while selling the smaller ones to the processing industry at a lower price.

This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line.