The prolonged dry spell and lack of adequate snowfall in the hills of Himachal Pradesh is threatening to put the Rs 20 billion fruit industry of the state in the doldrums.
"Lack of moisture in apple, peach, plum, apricot and almond orchards because of inadequate snow and rain during this season is not good for the crops," state horticulture department director Gurdev Singh said.
He said the sudden rise in day temperature in March has further reduced the moisture content of the soil.
"The ideal temperature for a good apple crop is between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius at this time of the year. Surprisingly, it's above 22 degrees Celsius. If there is no rain in the next two to three weeks, the prospects of a good yield are bleak," Gurdev Singh said.
About 81 percent of the total cultivated area in the state is rain-fed.
According to the meteorological office here, 11 of the 12 districts in Himachal Pradesh have received deficient rainfall during the winter.
"The state has experienced a relatively warm and dry winter this year," said Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological office.
Of the districts, Bilaspur was the driest this winter with a rainfall and snowfall deficiency of 82 percent, followed by Solan (78 percent), Sirmaur (76), Mandi (75), Hamirpur and Shimla (74 each), Kinnaur (67) and Kangra (61 percent).
Manmohan Singh said the mean maximum and minimum for January, February and March were one to four degrees Celsius above average.
"While in January, the mean maximum for Shimla district was 14.4 degrees Celsius, 5.6 degrees Celsius more than normal, the mean minimum temperature was 5.8 degrees Celsius, 3.8 degrees Celsius above normal," he said.
Snow is considered "white manure" for the apple 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.
"Some apple-growing areas in Shimla, Kullu and Mandi districts saw snowfall only on February 10 and there was no snow after that," Manmohan Singh said.
P S Chauhan, a horticulture expert at the Solan-based Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, said: "Two mild spells of snow in the past two months are not enough to maintain sufficient moisture content of the soil till the April-May flowering season for apple."
According to the state's Forest and Environment Minister J P Nadda, there has been a "noticeable change" in the snowfall pattern in the state in the past 10-12 years.
"The hills are warming up faster, snowline is declining, glaciers are receding. Earlier, there was an accumulation of three to four feet of snow in most of the mid-hills till March-end," he said.
"This season the fields are totally devoid of ice cover. We are in desperate need of rain," said Varinder Sharma, an apple farmer from Oddi village in Shimla district.
According to Gurdev Singh, the apple crop suffered most due to lack of snow in 1999-2000, when production came down to nine million standard boxes. The production was 25.5 million boxes in 2007-08, while the maximum output of 28.6 million boxes was recorded in 2006-07.
Apple is the state's main fruit crop and is being grown in nine out of 12 districts. The area under the apple crop has increased to 94,726 hectares in 2007-08 from 400 hectares in 1960-61.
Besides apple, other fruits like pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, kiwi, strawberry, olive, almonds and plums are the major commercial crops of Himachal Pradesh.