The much-awaited cherry crop from picturesque Tangmarg in North Kashmir is ready for harvest. But the local cherry growers are not happy. For the second consecutive season, mobility and market concerns imposed by the pandemic have put the harvest festivity into the dark again.
Peeping through the dense branches of a cherry tree in his ancestral orchard, septuagenarian Ali Mohammad held out his hand, showing the juicy red cherry fruits. Harboring hundreds of well grown cherry trees, Mohammad’s fruit orchard that measures 12 kanals at the foot hills of Gulmarg, a popular hill station.
A product of human hard work and nature’s benevolence, the cherry fruits are ready for harvest. The cherry trees here stand on elevated lands, with the snowy peaks of Tosa Maidan, a popular tourist attraction, in the background. But the pandemic-induced lockdown has severely impacted the livelihoods of the cherry farmers.
“It is after many years that there is a good produce this year,” said Ali Mohammad, while referring to the good crop of cherries this season. “This is our primary source of livelihood, but as it happened in the past few seasons the lack of market for our produce is a big concern.”
The market has been facing closure due to lockdowns imposed by the second wave of COVID-19. As tourism has come to a standstill because of the pandemic, the cherry farmers have not been able to tap into the tourist market.
Every year thousands of tourists visit Gulmarg, the popular ski resort. Though the resort witnesses a huge rush of tourists during winters, the place is an all-time attraction for both local people as well as outside visitors. Vehicles plying past Tangmarg en route Gulmarg stop to take pictures and end up buying a few boxes of cherries.
Ali Mohammad’s son Mushtaq Ahmad voices the same concern. “The market for our cherry is actually tourism driven. Both local and domestic tourists use to buy fresh cherries directly from growers while on their way to tourist destinations,” said Ahmad.
“For years now, I have been selling my fruit on a makeshift kiosk, just at the entrance of my orchard, located adjacent to Srinagar-Gulmarg road,” Ali Mohammad. “Because of the large flow of visitors I never had to take my fruit to mandi or any other market.”
“I used to earn good returns for my crop. Normally, the sellers here sell the cherry for good rates since the tourists are willing to pay more for fresh produce. But like previous year, this season too has happened to be a dampener,” says Ali Mohammad.
Impact on income
“From fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and packaging material, coupled with our labor, I doubt whether the crop will even return the basic expenditures incurred on the fruit,” says Ali Mohammad, keeping his fingers crossed about the possible returns.
There are hundreds of the families which are engaged with the trade of cherry farming in this area. Most of the farmers sell their produce directly to the tourists plying. On either side of the road leading to the high altitude Gulmarg, there are scores of makeshift kiosks selling the fresh fruit on normal days.
Mohammad Irfan, a high school drop out from the neighboring Ferozpura hamlet, has been selling the fresh fruits to tourists from a makeshift kiosk for the last few years. “I used to earn Rs 800 to 1000 a day by reselling the fresh cherry to tourists. But I am hardly able to make RS 100 nowadays,” he says.
Waiting with hope
According to an official from the Department of Horticulture, the cherry from Tangmarg is one of the best produced in the country. Since the cherry grows well on elevated lands, mostly on the foothills, the geographic location of the area makes it a blooming abode of the fruit.
Awal Number, Mishri, Double and Italy are some of the varieties grown in the area. Tangmarg contributes a sizeable quantity of cherry produced in Kashmir. In 2018, the cherry production in the valley had reached to about 12,000 metric tons, says the officer.
As the case load of COVID-19 patients in the region has shown a considerable decline over the past days, and as they have had a good yield this year, the cherry farmers in this part of Himalayas wait for the footfall of tourists with hope, so that they can sell their produce, and make some money.
Nasir Yousufi is a Kashmir-based journalist. Views are personal.