Himachal Pradesh's apple season may have begun nearly two months ago, but the really delicious ones, from Kinnaur district, are headed for markets across the country only now.
Kinnauri apples are known for their natural sweetness, colour and juiciness.
Every day, trucks carrying hundreds of apple cartons from the Chango, Ribba and Namgiya valley of Kinnaur, 250 km from Shimla, are heading for Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Lucknow, giving tough competition to Kashmiri apples.
However, the apple crop from Lahaul and Spiti district is yet to reach the markets; only some early varieties are reaching the markets.
"We are hopeful of a bumper crop this year, but (it may be) slightly less than the previous year's record of two million cartons. So far, 200,000 cartons have been sent to various markets," said S.S. Mehta, the state horticulture department's deputy director who is based in Kinnaur.
"The total yield from Kinnaur district alone could be anything up to 1.6 million boxes," he said.
Retailers and streetside fruit vendors often sell apples from other parts of Himachal as the Kinnauri variety. But the reality is that Kinnaur apples starts coming only in September-end.
Subhash Gupta, an apple farmer from Kinnaur, said the price of the Royal Delicious, Red Delicious and Rich-a-Red varieties at the Chandigarh wholesale fruit market this week was Rs.1,000-Rs.1,500 per box of 25 kg.
Partap Singh Kairon, a fruit merchant at the Dhalli wholesale fruit market, about 10 km from here, said, "Apples from tribal districts are always in high demand and enjoy a virtual monopoly. With the arrival of the crop from areas located between 6,000 and 8,500 feet, the demand for apples from other areas has decreased."
Rajeev Manta, an orchard owner from Hurling in the Spiti subdivision, said: "We are hopeful of getting a good return for our crop this year too." He said the apple crop that would be ready by mid-October would continue till November end.
The apple season in the state is in full swing with 16.1 million boxes having been transported out of the state.
"More than 50 percent of the total crop has been sent to various markets in the country," Horticulture Minister Narender Bragta said.
He said around 250,000 cartons move out of the state daily.
Himachal Pradesh is one of the major apple-producing regions of the country. More than 200,000 families are engaged in apple cultivation and 90 percent of them are small and marginal farmers with an average holding of less than 0.6 hectare.