Why India should start taking apples seriously
Govt announced special measures to support Kashmiri apples, but it will still face a challenge in selling them. A regional partnership could lead to apples from China, Australia and New Zealand being dumped in India.
This is the apple that American growers are hoping will rescue them from stagnating sales of Fujis, Galas, Golden and Red Delicious, all the varieties which have defined the mass market branded apple business. Work to develop it started 20 years ago at Washington State University (WSU) and commercial planting began in 2017 with 12 million trees.
The fruits of those trees are now due to hit the market on December 1st and it is being treated like a launch from, well, Apple.
There is a marketing budget of over $10 million. Demand for seedlings was so high that WSU did a lottery to give them out. WSU will get a royalty for every seedling purchased and every box of apples sold. And it is surely only a matter of time before China claims it has cloned the Cosmic Crisp.
In India too, apples are attracting attention for rather different reasons. Kashmir is by far the largest producer of apples in India. According to figures from the National Horticulture Board in 2017-18, the state produced 77.7% of apples in India and when one considers that, rather surprisingly, India is the fifth largest producer of apples in the world, Kashmir would then be the 11th largest grower of the apples, coming after Russia and above Brazil.
The state has always had a problem in getting its apples to wider markets but this year the lockdown ever since the announcement of the ending of Article 370 is proving to be a unique challenge. It has also, apparently, been a bumper harvest, which means vast amounts of apples could go to waste. Aware of this, and seeing the chance to boost the state economy and build ties with farmers, the Indian government has announced special measures to support Kashmiri apples.
In September, the chief secretary of Jammu & Kashmir, BVR Subrahmanyam, announced that 12 lakh metric tonnes of apples would be procured at a cost of around Rs 8000 crore. “It is expected to enhance growers’ income by about Rs 2000 crores,” he said. But apple growing areas like Pulwama, have been badly affected by militancy – anecdotally, the orchards are said to provide cover for militants, who also eat the fruit. They are now attacking farmers who are taking government help and making it even harder to find trucks to take the fruit out of the state.
Assuming that the government does manage to get these apples to the rest of India, it will still face a challenge in selling them.
It may help that as part of the trade wars with the Trump administration, tariffs on American apples have been raised, much to the irritation of US politicians like Wisconsin’s Republican congressman Dan Newhouse. But another import threat is emerging with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that could lead to apples from China, Australia and New Zealand being dumped in India.
This can be seen starkly in any large fruit shop or supermarket where the imported apples are displayed with care on higher shelves, while Indian apples languish, poorly presented, at a lower level. Indian apples are much cheaper than imported ones, and yet consumers don’t care for them much. For all that India grows so many apples, we have never really taken them to heart.
We eat apples because they store well and bulk out fruit baskets, can be easily carried as a healthy snack or even odder uses like the massive apple garlands presented to politicians. Last year in Karnataka the then chief minister Sidaramaiah was given a 750 kg apple garland that had to be moved with a crane.
THE STOKES STORY
Yet few people really long for Indian apples, as we do for other fruits like mangoes or guavas or bananas. There is a sense of them not quite being Indian, which is reinforced by the most famous example of apple promotion in India – the story of how Satyanand Stokes, the American Gandhian, brought apple cultivation to the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Yet other non-Indian origin fruits, like guavas, papayas and chikoos have been so deeply embraced by us that we can barely imagine that they weren’t originally from here.
Apples, in fact, have a far longer history in India. The origin of apples has been traced to Kazakhstan (the name of its largest city, Almaty, probably derives from ‘place of apples’) and they spread along the Silk Route, which connected with Kashmir. The Mughals also brought apples with them. The Nushkae-Shahjahani, recently recreated as The Mughal Feast by Salma Husain, has recipes like Shishranga Saib Namky, apples stewed with spices and then cooked with eggs. Another source of apples was the British.
As Stokes’ biographer (and grand-daughter) Asha Sharma readily notes in An American in Khadi, the British were planting apples in the hills long before Stokes got there. In 1911 the Times of India carried a report noting how “the apple growing industry that has found a home in Kulu has proved a very welcome addition to the somewhat meagre fruit supply of this country.”
And in contrast to today, the report notes how Kulu apples were killing off the import of apples from Australia.
What Stokes really contributed was modern varieties and techniques that helped make apples more popular for the mass market. One basic issue with apples is how easily they diversify. “Apples have a.. a dizzying range of inherited characteristics,” writes Frank Brown, who wrote Apples: the Story of the Fruit of Temptation. “Any one ‘mother’ tree can produce a broad array of similar-looking apples whose seeds will produce ‘daughter’ apple trees that have completely different shapes... and create fruit with utterly different colour, sweetness..”
This characteristic is what has made apples such a successful fruit, adapting easily to different conditions. And as long as people lived close to the apple trees whose fruit they consumed they knew which ones gave fruit good for eating, which for cooking and which for pressing and making into cider – which was, historically, one of the main reasons for growing apples. Countries which have long apple consuming traditions value this variety, and it is one reason why, among the varieties planted by the British, many were more sour and suited for cooking.
MASS MARKET PROBLEM
The problem comes in developing a mass market for apples mainly meant for eating.
Consumers want sweet crisp apples that are consistent and this is hard to achieve with traditional techniques. But in the late 19th century American growers set out to develop just this using a range of techniques, from horticultural ones, like grafting, which allows you to grow identical apples, but also less obvious means, like colour printing, which created handbooks of apple varieties so people could identify and choose particular ones. And rail distribution helped these varieties rapidly reach larger markets.
This approach to apple farming was what Stokes brought to India. He imported the Red and Golden Delicious varieties that the Stark nursery company had developed for mass cultivation, he persuaded local farmers in the hills to give them a try – urging them to plant between their fields as border trees, if they didn’t want to try them in orchards – and, above all, by badgering reluctant British officials to develop road transportation for apples. Without this holistic approach it is likely that apple cultivation in India would have remained a niche hill crop.
But mass production of just a few varieties of apples has its own problems. As consumers lost their memory of (or never got to know in the first place) the vast variety of apples, with all their different flavours and uses, apples became less important to them. In the past people would go to apple orchards in harvest season to get their apples, and store them for long term use. Now one would just buy from the supermarket, which had the side effect of giving retailers greater control over fruit production.
This would become a problem because what retailers wanted from fruit was good-looking and long-storing fruit, but how it tasted was less important. And producers started to tweak varieties like Red Delicious, for example developing apples that turned red before they were fully ripe, so they could be picked and dispatched when still hard so damage was reduced. And since they looked ripe consumers would buy them – and then be disappointed when they didn’t taste good.
A big reason why a politician like Newhouse, who represents a huge Red Delicious farming state, is agitated about Indian tariffs is because American farmers are desperate to dump their fruit abroad, since American consumers no longer want them. From being the favoured mass market apple, Red Delicious has become the apple that no one wants – and this is why Cosmic Crisp has been developed and is being marketed in an unprecedented way.
American farmers hope that American consumers will get back to eating apples with these new varieties, while Red Delicious can be dumped with consumers, like Indians, who don’t know better.
But the biggest irony is that, just as farmers in the USA are turning against the old mass market varieties, Indians have been planting them. Ten years ago in Uttaranchal, I was told that some of the old British planted trees were still around, with varieties like Benoni, Rymer and Early Shanbury that would probably count as prized heirloom varieties now. But as they reached the end of their natural lives they were being replaced with Red and Golden Delicious, since these were what the market valued.
Apples in India aren’t usually marketed by variety – they are just sold as Kulu or Kashmir apples. This is a problem in itself since you don’t know what you are getting, and it is why they can be so variable, with one excellent apple followed by a tasteless, mushy one. But when you probe and ask about variety, it is usually Red or Golden Delicious, or Galas and Fujis, the varieties first developed to replace them, which are now also falling out of favour abroad.
It is also quite likely that, with the general disorganisation in the Kashmir apples market, and in the absence of interested consumers, there’s been little upkeep of trees, leading to even lower quality. And these are the apples that the Indian government is proposing to flood the market with – to compete with apples being dumped by foreign producers because those varieties are no longer wanted abroad. Is there any surprise why Indian consumers aren’t that enthused by apples?
For this to change we need to look, as Stokes did, at a holistic approach to apples, which also includes a range of varieties that can show Indian consumers the amazing f lavours and uses that apples can offer. This could include identifying heirloom varieties, where they still exist in the hills, or finding distinct Indian varieties, or planting a range of imported ones. Perhaps the government could even acquire some Cosmic Crisp seedlings and promote it to farmers, creating a Kosmic Kashmiri apple that really might enthuse Indian consumers.