Why Kashmir’s walnut trees are yielding peanuts

Why Kashmir’s walnut trees are yielding peanuts

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Forty-five-year-old Abdul Rashid Mir did not think much of how to make a living beyond taking care of his walnut farm, growing up in Srinagar’s Burzahama—a semi-urban locality witnessing rapid urbanisation and swift farmland decline. Mir’s father had planted walnut trees on seven kanals of land (little less than an acre) around six decades back and handed over the legacy to him. Mir...

Forty-five-year-old Abdul Rashid Mir did not think much of how to make a living beyond taking care of his walnut farm, growing up in Srinagar’s Burzahama—a semi-urban locality witnessing rapid urbanisation and swift farmland decline. Mir’s father had planted walnut trees on seven kanals of land (little less than an acre) around six decades back and handed over the legacy to him.

Mir found the earnings sufficient to manage family expenses, maintain a decent lifestyle and also save a bit from the money collected by selling walnuts – until he couldn’t.

In 2018, Mir found himself compelled to sell his inheritance to a land broker.

“Walnut farming ended up being just a burden on me. So, I decided to sell the farm and what I earned by selling the farm, I couldn’t have made in the walnut business even if I had stayed 500 years in the trade,” Mir told The Federal.

To ensure a steady source of income, Mir invested the money he got from selling the walnut farm in buying one hectare of land in Hajin area of Kashmir and planted high-yielding apple trees on it. In 2021, he got the first apple yield from the orchard which earned him about Rs 14 lakh.

“I was merely getting Rs 5,000 per walnut tree earlier,” Mir said. “I ran into losses.”

Each kanal of land has about 10-12 walnut trees and so Mir owned about 70-85 trees, which earned him just about Rs 4,00,000.

Mir’s is not an isolated story. Walnut growers in Kashmir have been under distress for some time now, but unlike Mir, they haven’t found alternatives. “Walnut growers are getting peanuts in the name of sustaining an organic cash crop,” Mir said.

The curse of high demand

In a cruel irony, what caused the distress for the crop is high demand. While high demand for a product is good news for those trading in it, for walnuts, the story was quite the opposite. High demand is said to have caused the distress among Kashmir’s walnut growers. Even though Kashmir has seen a steady rise in production over the years, quality of its produce and the pace at which the demand is rising have proved to a dampener for the Valley.

About a decade ago, Patanjali cofounder Ramdev prescribed walnuts for its many health benefits. People swallowed Ramdev’s advice that walnut is a remedy for knee pain. In 2012, walnut prices began hitting the roof as demand rose. While the wholesale price of walnut in shell surged 17-20 per cent, walnut kernel price jumped up to 50 per cent.

An overall rise in awareness towards good health and more disposable incomes has also seen people spend on healthy eating.

While the phenomenon led to a sudden spike in profits for walnut growers and traders, the problem started when Kashmir found itself unable to match production with demand. To fill the demand-supply gap, Indian markets got flooded with walnuts from California and Chile. Eventually, the foreign walnuts with “better quality, uniform size and soft shells” squeezed the market share of Kashmir’s walnut produce.

The production cost of 200 kgs of walnuts in Kashmir is anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000. The sale price of walnut is anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 950 per kg. The rates change depending on the quality of the walnut. However, the quality of the Kashmiri kernel is not uniform. As per traders, one kg of walnut gives only about 30 per cent white kernel and the rest of the 70 per cent is waste. To make up for the waste, Kashmiri kernels are sold at about Rs 1,100 per kg.

A dry fruits shop in Kashmir. Walnut growers and traders in Kashmir have been under distress for some time now. Photo: Safeena Wani

Imported ones are cheaper as they are sold at around Rs 425 per kg and the kernel is sold at around Rs 950 per kg. Also, one kg of imported walnut gives at least 90 per cent of uniform and white kernels.

And so despite being in the trade for over 35 years, Noor Din is staring at a bleak future. “Walnut farmers are unable to meet the growing Indian walnut appetite because of which the whole industry is in crisis,” he told The Federal.

“Kashmir is unable to fulfil the walnut demand of the country,” Noor Din said. “The entire production from Kashmir cannot meet the demand in India beyond 20 days.”

Earlier, Din added, walnut was merely consumed as a dry fruit in the country. “But after Ramdev’s advice, people have started treating it as a medicinal value fruit and taking at least one or two walnuts daily. It has only increased the demand which we are not able to meet.”

A decade ago, Din said, Kashmiri walnuts would be exported to European countries getting the producers good dividends. But after domestic demand increased, there is nothing left to export. “In all these years, California, Chile, China and Turkey have been able to dominate the walnut market by making use of technology to ramp up production and rule the international market.”

With the season of walnuts already ending on a sour note in the Valley, the traders are worried about the future.

“Only our special clients based in India or abroad buy Kashmiri walnuts from us due to their rich and organic value,” said Osman Ahmad who runs his family’s seven-decade-old venture, Azad Agro Traders. “Back home, we majorly deal in imported Chile walnuts as there is no complaint from the customers about black kernels, small size and shell sturdiness.”

Production challenges

Bashir Teli, a 24-year-old grower from Budgam district, says the cost of walnut production in Kashmir is much higher and the profit margin is negligible.

“Absence of a walnut mandi and five per cent GST is only adding to the cost factor,” he said.

“Foreign countries have technology which cuts their labour cost and they reap bumper crops from their high-yield trees,” Bashir said.

Across the Valley, walnut is harvested manually. A chanan woel or walnut thrasher climbs up trees, which are 30-45 metres high. After perching themselves at a safe spot on the tree, they beat the branches until most of the walnuts fall to the ground with long sticks made from willow or some other wood. The shelled fruit is collected in gunny bags, peeled, washed and sun-dried before being sold in the market.

In the face of these concerns and challenges, many farmers have axed their trees and sold them to traders who further use the wood to make furniture. Walnut wood is very strong and can take intricate carving. The colour can be beautiful making it ideal for furniture.

“Every year, around 10 per cent of walnut wood is used in the furniture industry. I am getting merely Rs 10,000 if the tree yields five bags of walnuts. While, I could get Rs 1.50 lakh for each tree in the furniture factory,” Bashir said.

Experts fear that walnut production will further squeeze in the coming years due to scarce walnut plantation. Even though some efforts are being made by institutions such as the J&K Horticulture Department in carrying out plantation drives, including that of high-density walnut varieties, a larger-scale campaign is missing. Given the scale of the problem, experts said, such small efforts won’t help boost walnut production of Kashmir.

The mismatch

Amid the growing demand, data from the J&K Horticulture Department revealed that the region has seen an astronomical rise in walnut production over the past 40 years. From 10,500 tonnes in 1972, walnut production reached 2.7 lakh tonnes in 2012.

Kashmir’s walnut production was 1,90,451 metric tonnes (MT) in 2017-2018, 1,98,431 MT in 2018-2019, 1,80,973 MT in 2019-2020, 1,77,070 MT in 2020-2021 and 1,82,659 MT in 2021-2022.

India produced 2.82 lakh tonnes of walnuts in 2021-22 with Kashmir accounting for around 92 per cent of the produce. Anantnag and Kupwara are the leading producers of walnuts in Kashmir. But the area under walnut cultivation has shrunk from 47,004 hectares in 2017-2018 to 46,197 in 2021-2022 hectares.

“The Horticulture Department has never done any productive efforts related to walnut production in Kashmir,” Bahadur Khan, president of the Dry Fruit Association of Kashmir, told The Federal.

Even though production has increased, the quality has worsened over the years and nothing has been done to address it. The production rise too is no match for the competition from the international market.

“The officials of the department are only busy taking pictures around walnut trees and circulating them in the media. This organic fruit is a completely unorganised industry in Kashmir. Our production in Kashmir is from 60-year-old trees, with 80 per cent yield being black and irregular in size. Only 20 per cent of our production is of good quality,” Khan said.

In Kupwara, Khan said, the officials haven’t even supplied a walnut sapling in the last 20 years. “They should take village panchayats on board and motivate farmers for walnut farming. But let me tell you this, farmers now are least interested in walnut cultivation,” he said.

Seven years back, the Kashmiri kernel would sell between Rs 200 and Rs 1,100 per kg. But since imports started in India, prices for the same kernels have dropped drastically.

In the backdrop of this gradual fall in area and quality of production, J&K Walnut Exporters Association and Birpur Small Scale Industries Association have shot two separate petitions to Prime Minister, Union Finance Minister and Commerce Secretary, stating that imposition of 100 per cent import duty on walnuts to protect local production and farmers has not worked because of being under-invoiced by local traders.

“If this continues, there will be no incentive for these small farmers to start new plantations, and the trade will eventually dry up,” the petition said.

Stakeholders in walnut trade claim the officials have buried their heads in the sand over the issue.

“The walnut trees are very old and unproductive in Kashmir. So, from this year, we introduced a scheme for walnut nurseries of high density plants. We will soon be importing material from California which will boost our production in the coming years,” said Muneer Ahmad, chief horticulture officer, Kupwara.

Muneer admits that farmers in Kashmir are not aware about how to select new walnut plants for greater productivity. In general, there is a lack of research too.

“They [farmers] simply plant any old variety or whatever comes in their way,” he said. “We need to do more work and research on walnuts but SKUAST [Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology] has not researched much on local variety. If they would have segregated each of the varieties which are locally available and promoted the best one, then we would have succeeded in making the walnut industry successful,” Muneer said.

However, Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture (CITH), Rangreth Srinagar, has developed around 10 varieties of indigenous walnuts of superior quality.

“We are in the process of promoting those varieties and some others are also in the pipeline,” said Javed Ahmad, a CITH official. “We have been providing these varieties to farmers since the last 10 years but not in the volumes required.”

Some experts say Kashmiri walnuts do not lack nutritional quality, but still lose out on other yardsticks of buyers.

Dr Imtiyaz Lone, a horticulture scientist from SKUAST, said that Kashmir’s organic walnuts have no comparison in terms of quality. “These walnut kernels with vitamins, proteins and fats are considered best in the world. But we have two major problems with the walnut industry here. One is production and second is post-harvest problems,” Lone said.

In Kashmir, Imtiyaz Lone said, one kanal of land has a maximum of 10 walnut trees when the same land in China and Chile has around 30 trees. “And each tree has good yield,” he said.

“Post-harvest problems include farmers lacking walnut-grading machines,” Imtiyaz Lone added. “While washing walnuts, water goes inside and kernels and they later turn black. And finally some traders mix white kernels with black ones and create a bad name for Kashmiri walnut.”

Foreign variety risk

To tide over the crisis, some traders are buying high-yield walnut saplings straight from California and China at Rs 1,000 each. This poses a risk to the entire walnut production in Kashmir.

An expert from SKAUST, who wished to remain anonymous, said that private players are selling foreign walnut tress sapling risking the cultivation in India.

Production in Kashmir is from 60-year-old trees, with 80 per cent yield being black and irregular in size. Photo: Safeena Wani

“Production of the crop is in high demand, but we don’t need production, we need quality. And our planning department is sleeping. The horticulture department should restrain private players from selling imported plant materials as they have not been tested and checked for Indian conditions. Suppose if they contain a disease, who will suffer? The disease affects our regional crops as well. But the farmers are not made aware about these aspects.”

As the crisis sweeps the Valley’s trade, Abdul Rashid Mir finds himself a relieved man. The walnut-grower-turned-apple-producer says he made a good decision.

“Well, I could see it coming,” Mir said. “But then not everyone can be so prompt in the farming business—where the growing demand has itself become a big problem now.”

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