Shimla, Jan 11: The prolonged dry winter spell may hit the Rs.3,500 crore ($520 million) fruit economy of Himachal Pradesh, horticulture experts say. This month, the precipitation - both rain and snow - has been more than 68 percent deficit.
The situation can improve if there is adequate snow and rain till mid-February. Farmers are now praying for this.
The hill state is one of India's major apple producing regions, with more than 90 percent of the produce going to the domestic market. Apple alone constitutes 89 percent of the state's fruit economy.
"Lack of rain and snow at this point in time could severely affect the overall production of all stone fruits, including apples," S.P. Bhardwaj, a former joint director at the Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, said.
He said the apple crop requires 400 to 1,200 hours of chilling with the average temperature at seven degrees Celsius or less during dormancy and before flowering begins by March-end.
"There are noticeable fluctuations in chilly hours due to prolonged dry spells. Snow, or at least rain, is a must for the apple plants that are in the dormancy stage now," Bhardwaj said.
Added a worried Sanjeev Sharma, an apple farmer from Kiari village, the known apple belt in Shimla district: "There is hardly any snow or rain from December onwards. If this weather trends persist, it will seriously impact the overall production."
Snow is considered "white manure" for the fruit orchards as it not only helps in meeting the minimum chilling requirement but also sustains the required level of moisture in the soil during summer when the fruit is maturing.
Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological office in Shimla, said the mean maximum and minimum for December and January were one to four degrees Celsius above average.
"In the first eight days of this month, the precipitation deficiency was 68 percent in the state. There was a 40 percent shortfall last month," he said.
Manmohan Singh said dry conditions would continue at least for a week or so as no major western disturbance is approaching the region.
Reports from the field say prominent apple belts in Kothgarh, Jubbal, Kotkhai and Thanedar in Shimla district, the entire Kullu Valley and Karsog in Mandi district were rain and snow deficit in the past two weeks, the peak winter season.
Shimla district, which alone accounts for 80 percent of the total apple production, experienced an 81 percent shortfall of rain and snow this month. The deficit last month was 25 percent.
Horticulture Minister Vidya Stokes, a prominent apple grower, said it's too early to predict the expected apple yield. "It's a fact that there is a lack of snow and rain in the past two months. We are hopeful of sufficient snow and rain falling before the flowering begins."
Bhardwaj said if the dry conditions persist or the winter is extended, as happened last year, there will be no uniform flowering in all the fruit crops, including the apple, resulting in poor yields.
The apple flowering season is from March-end to April, depending upon the plant variety.
Over the years, apple production in the state has been erratic, say experts.
The reason is a prolonged winter spell and lack of adequate rainfall when the apple crop was ripening between May and June.
The apple yield was 739,000 tonnes in 2013-14, while it was 412,000 tonnes in 2012-13, 275,000 tonnes in 2011-12, says Himachal Pradesh's economic survey for 2014-15.
Besides apple, other fruits like pear, peach, cherry, apricot, kiwi, strawberry, olive, almond and plum are the major commercial crops of the state.