Reviving Organic Apple cultivation in Shalkar (Kinnaur)

Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh is well known for their apple cultivation. These high hills provide ideal climatic conditions for apple crops with the requisite chilling season in the winter. An apple variety known as Malus Pumila is a widely grown cash crop in the entire Upper Kinnaur valley. Shalkar village in particular is known for growing organic apples that’s much coveted for it’s sweetness and crunchiness. However, organic cultivation hasn’t always been the default practice in the village. This change is inspired by one man’s zeal and subsequent community resilience for better farming practises.

Perched at the altitude of 3200 metres, Shalkar is one of the last villages of Upper Kinnaur region before Spiti valley starts. There are over 110 households in the village - most of them dependent on apple cultivation for livelihood. While apples produced from other districts of Himachal ripen by July, the Kinnaur apples grown at a higher altitude start ripening around mid September or sometimes stretching till November hitting fruit markets across the country just before winter. The apples produced here are bulk transported to neighbouring metropolitan states where it is sold at a premium rate. Like many apple producing regions, the farmers here use chemical fertilisers and pesticides for bulk production. The usage became particularly more popular in recent years. In Kinnaur, It begins during the flowering season and continues till harvest. Use of chemical pesticides like Tefgor, Malathion, insecticide like Rogor, Durmet and a wide range of fungicides like Lethal, Kashstin, Majestic became quite handy for farmers seeking higher yield.

Earlier, many farmers do not use pesticides and fertilisers; most of them cannot even afford these but in recent years, the chemical spraying has increased from doing twice in a year up to spraying seven times in a year. The rampant usage of pesticides deeply bothered Karam Sing Negi - a cultivator from Shalkar village. He became conscious of the long term health and environmental hazards of pesticides and was determined to find an alternative. He gradually minimised the use of harmful pesticides and other chemical fertilisers in his own orchard.

WhatsApp Image 2022-02-07 at 12.34_edited.jpg

Photo Courtesy: Karam Singh Negi

WhatsApp Image 2022-01-13 at 10.23.22.jpeg

The apple worm. Photo Courtesy: Chunnit Kesang

For a farmer whose livelihood is entirely dependent on his orchard produce it was a risky move but for Karam Singh, there’s no greater satisfaction than reviving natural ways of farming his ancestors practised for generations. Transitioning his orchard for organic farming wasn’t easy - it needed a slow but consistent approach. He started minimising heavy chemical inputs and used only animal manure, human waste and other biodegradable waste suitable for it. For the initial few years, there was no prominent change and the yields were low. But he kept moving on with the same approach - his land needed to heal and the soil, the plants needed to reach its natural equilibrium.

Shalkar apple. Photo - Mayank Pathak.jpg
Kinnauri Apples - Mayank Pathak.jpg

Photos Courtesy: Mayank Pathak

For a farmer whose livelihood is entirely dependent on his orchard produce it was a risky move but for Karam Singh, there’s no greater satisfaction than reviving natural ways of farming his ancestors practised for generations. Transitioning his orchard for organic farming wasn’t easy - it needed a slow but consistent approach. He started minimising heavy chemical inputs and used only animal manure, human waste and other biodegradable waste suitable for it. For the initial few years, there was no prominent change and the yields were low. But he kept moving on with the same approach - his land needed to heal and the soil, the plants needed to reach its natural equilibrium.

 

Hearing his approach, His Holiness Lochen Tulku Rinpoche (Highly revered spiritual leader) advised everyone in the village to follow the same path. Rinpoche also shared Karam Singh’s concerns regarding long term ecological damage. Adopting natural ways of farming will not only restore damaged ecosystems but also will help avoid killing of small insects and microorganisms. Convincing everyone else in the village to avoid using pesticides and chemical fertilisers was challenging. Shalkar village comprised both big Zamindars as well as marginal farmers. The villagers had an internal community meeting regarding it and there were various opinions/reactions regarding it. Few agreed with the idea while others were concerned about low yield and low productivity which could eventually impact their own livelihood as apple orchards were subject to a lot of pests and diseases. After much discussion, everyone in the village unanimously agreed to avoid chemical fertilisers in their orchards. The villagers even hosted a religious ceremony seeking blessings from local deities for good harvest. Lochen Rinpoche inaugurated the “Jinshak” ceremony by scattering ash and manure in the apple orchards of Shalkar village and advising everyone to revive traditional farming practises. For the first 3-4 years, the apple yield from Shalkar village dropped drastically. With dwindling yields, there were many uncertainties - some farmers even struggled to pay school

WhatsApp Image 2022-02-07 at 12.34.00 PM.jpeg

Photo Courtesy: Karam Singh Negi

WhatsApp Image 2022-02-07 at 12.34.02 PM.jpeg

Photo Courtesy: Karam Singh Negi

fees for their children. However, their resilience paid off when the apple orchards of Shalkar village slowly recovered and started bearing luscious apples again!

 

With passing years, the villagers experienced improved yield from their orchard and noticed the apples from their village are different from neighbouring Kinnaur villages. Apples grown in organic farms in Shalkar have a distinctive sweet, crunchy taste with a natural waxy exterior which even gained preference among bidders who are involved in large scale apple export business. The villagers are working towards organic certification which will help them gain due recognition in the market. This story of organic farming and community led change in a small himalayan village shows it is possible to grow pristine apples without harmful pesticides.

About the Authors

Author Profile - Storytellers.jpg

Storytellers

This story is collectively narrated by Karam Singh Negi, Chhering Lonbo, Tashi Dorjee and Inder Kumar Gyalpo to Kesang Chunnit. They are passionate cultivators from Shalkhar village in Kinnaur and grow organic apples in their orchard. They hope to inspire other apple growers in Kinnaur to adopt organic farming through their story.

Kesang Chunit profile .JPG

Chunnit Kesang

Chunnit Kesang hails from Kibber village in Spiti and he currently works with NCF’s High Altitude Program. He is passionate about wildlife and photography. He travels frequently within Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur areas to help build conservation champions and bring out stories from these remote villages.