Unfruitful year for Himachal: After extreme weather and Covid-19, it’s apple scab
The re-emergence of the deadly fungal scab after four decades poses a serious threat to Himachal’s ₹4500 crore apple economy, already hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak and vagaries of the weather.
Heavy hailstorms and rain in the blooming season of March and April hit the apple crop , and labour problems and fertiliser shortage during the Covid-19 lockdown added to the damage.
The scab outbreak has partially affected crops in the main apple growing areas of Shimla, Mandi and Kullu districts.
A common disease, apple scab affects the foliage, blossoms, and fruits of trees, which develop dark lesions and can prematurely drop off or be deformed. The plant also faces increased risk of secondary infection.
Top politicians are also likely to suffer. Mandi, the home district of chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, himself an apple grower from Tandi village in Thunag, is the most affected. Horticulture minister Mahender Singh Thakur, also from the district, has an apple orchard in Karsog .
Survey reveals extent of spread
A horticulture department survey reveals that scab has impacted Ani and Dalash areas of Kullu districts, Janjehli, Thunag and Karsog in Mandi district and Narkanda, Rohru, Kharapathar, Kotkhai, Jubbal and Chirgaon in Shimla district.
Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti districts have reportedly been left unscathed.
Apple is most important fruit crop which constitutes about 49% of the total area under fruit cultivation and 74% of total fruit production in Himachal Pradesh .
Widespread scab attacks had been reported in the state in 1984 and again in 1986, impacting apple, HP’s most important fruit crop now covering about 49% of the total area under fruit cultivation, making up 74% of the total fruit production.
However, farmers in the state were supported by the government to tackle the problem and eradicate it by 1998.
Identification has been a problem
Experts point to prolonged spells of rain and extended spring this year as the main reasons for the scab spread, with other factors. “Apple scab has affected almost 60% of the orchards,” says Dr Onkar Shad, a former botanist and now a farmer and leader of the state’s Kisan Sabha. “All farmers, particularly the youngsters, were unaware of the symptoms of the disease. The fungal disease resurfaced in the many areas of Kullu and Mandi district last year too, but this time it’s an epidemic.”
The new generation of farmers was unaware of the disease and could not identify it when it started to infect the orchards, says professor Vijay Singh Thakur, former vice-chancellor of the Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni. “Earlier, as the epidemic was reported in the 1980s, many of the youngsters were not even born then. Timely detection of disease could have minimised losses for farmers,” Thakur adds.
Orchards neglected, no spraying done
After the Himachal Pradesh high court’s order in December 2018 to the state government to remove all forest encroachments, special teams were formed and apple trees on the forest land were partially chopped.
“Scab has reared its ugly head mainly due to the removal of encroachments, where half-cut trees were left by the department after the court’s order. As pesticides were also not sprayed on the trees, there was a spread of scab, and sap sucking insects such as scale and woolly aphids, fuelled by erratic and wet weather conditions,” says Lokinder Singh Bisht, president of Progressive Growers Association.
“Due to the lockdown and unavailability of labour too many orchards have been neglected and no maintenance and sprays have been carried out. Himachal apple growers are largely dependent on labourers from Nepal, but they could not enter because of Covid-19 restrictions,” adds Bisht.
Outbreak under control, says government
Experts advise that in the affected orchards, new infections can be reduced by removing leaf litter and trimmings and incinerating infected tissue. This will reduce the amount of new ascospores (spores in an ascus or sac in which fungi develop) released in the spring.
JP Sharma, joint director, department of horticulture, says that although the situation is under control scab has spread in most parts of the apple-growing belts, including Shimla, Kullu and Mandi districts. “ We suggest orchardists to follow the spray schedule to prevent the disease. Teams of our scientists are also visiting and monitoring the scab-affected areas,” he adds.
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