India: Apple Harvest Volunteering

Apple Harvest in India: Volunteering during the Harvesting Season

Apples are packed into boxes by volunteers during the harvest. Priya Krishnan Das photos.

By Priya Krishnan Das

Sai Orchards overlooking the mountains.
Sai Orchards overlooking the mountains.

Apples aren’t my favorite fruit. But the very thought of climbing apple trees and plucking apples seemed very romantic, so I set out looking for volunteering options for this year’s apple harvesting season.

I found Banjara Orchards in Thanedar, whose family has been into apple cultivation for many generations. They were taking volunteers for attending to guests who come during the apple season and not for apple harvesting itself.Luckily I enquired with a friend whose family owns apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh and he graciously invited me to be a guest and volunteer in apple harvesting.

Did You Know?

Did you know that apples are not native to India? An American named Samuel aka Satyanand Stokes started apple cultivation in Thanedar in the early 1900’s and it is from there that apple cultivation spread to other areas in India.

Golden apples being hand graded and sorted.
Golden apples being hand graded and sorted.

The apple harvesting season spans from early June until early November depending on the altitude of the region; the higher the altitude, the later the harvesting. The same goes for apple flowering too. Flowering begins in April until June depending on the altitude. By May, the petals fall and June onwards the fruiting season begins.

The flowering as well as the fruiting happens first on the tree tops which is more exposed to sunlight and then proceeds downward. Bees are the pollinators for apples. In some orchards which are sprawling, swarms of bees are released to increase the chances of pollination. In others, bees live naturally, thrive and pollinate.

In Sai Orchards, Ruhil Dhar, where I volunteered, apple harvesting begins around August 15th and ends by October 20th. Sai Orchards is a sprawling orchard spread over 100 bighas.

The owner, Mr. Shiv Kumar Sharma, an engineer by education, saw the potential in being an orchardist and returned to his home-town, Ruhil-Dhar, after his studies instead of taking up a regular job, to improvise and modernize the operations of the orchard started by his equally visionary father, Shri Roshanlal Sharma.

The Business of Apple Cultivation

Apples being handled on the grading machine.
Apples being handled on the grading machine.

The senior Sharma ran a grocery store in nearby Sawra and hearing about the new business of apple cultivation in Thanedar, decided to start the same in Ruhil-dhar around 60 years ago. Ruhil, with its location at an altitude of 7000 feet above sea level and rich soil seemed perfect for apple cultivation. Now, Mr. Shiv Kumar along with his brother Mr Pawan, oversee the operations in the orchard.

The orchard has a one kilometer road cutting across it to reduce time and increase efficiency in loading the trucks after harvesting.

Now trucks drive up to the cluster of trees from where apples have been plucked, so loading is easier and faster. It’s a great deal given the fact that apples are a perishable commodity and the price of apples fluctuates like stock prices in wholesale markets, so time is precious. This is one of the many innovations that Mr. Shiv Kumar has introduced in the orchard.

The varieties that are grown here are Royal, Rich Red, Golden, Red Gold. The newer varieties recently introduced are Super Chief, Top Red, Jeromine, Red Velox, etc.

Every year, workers from Nepal are hired for the harvesting season. Work includes plucking, loading crates into trucks, lugging crates uphill or downhill for loading, sorting and grading of apples, etc. The workers are sturdy and very hard working. I was almost stunned to see them carry 2 or 3 crates weighing 30- 50 kgs strapped to their backs and walking uphill for a kilometer to load the trucks!

Sai Orchards has permanent workers who live on the property and work throughout the year. During off-season, there is other work like cutting the grass, pruning the trees, grafting and other miscellaneous work. On the other smaller orchards, workers migrate to the apple growing areas in July and stay for three to four months often moving from one orchard to another, for a daily wage of Rs 300.

A heavily laden apple tree.
A heavily laden apple tree.

I was happy to see that in Sai Orchards, Mr Shiv Kumar has provided basic amenities for sanitation, drinking water and even food to the daily wage workers, which is not the case in many other orchards.

Grading and SortingOnce the apples are plucked from the trees, they are put into crates and then taken for grading and sorting. On any tree you will find apples of all sizes and varying shapes too. So they need to be sorted based on their size, before they come to the markets because profits are based on uniformity of size like any other fruit.

In the bigger orchards like Sai Orchards and another orchard in Kharapathar, called Sai Rattan Orchard, where I assisted in grading and sorting, this process is mechanized. Crates of apples are emptied onto a conveyor belt which carries it on a bed rolling brushes to brush off dust and other particles and then a bed of velvety rollers to give it a mild shine.

This lot then passes through an outlet with an opening that increases gradually along the sides, from where apples starting with the smallest to the biggest roll out onto the trays along the sides of the outlet. These apples are then collected and sorted and packed.

Apples which are out of shape, too small, or with dents from hail stones, birds and any such are collected separately. It is these fruits that are sold to the juice and jam factories.

Bite sized apples don't have a market so are sold to juice factories.
Bite sized apples don’t have a market so are sold to juice factories.

The grading is based on six sizes, XL, L, M, S, XS and a size smaller than XS. The first five sizes are packed in five layers in carton boxes and the last one in six layers. So typically if you buy a whole carton box at the wholesale, this will be the arrangement.

The packed boxes are now ready to be sold. Wholesale buyers come directly to the orchards where they negotiate the price and arrange for the transport or orchardists load trucks and take the apples for auctioning in huge ‘mandis’ where wholesalers bid the price and then it is sold to the highest bidder.

Good quality apples are sold anywhere in the range of Rs1000 –Rs1500 per box, and a box contains 25 kgs of apples. On the way to Shimla, I saw many trucks from distant states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which had come to directly transport apples to their respective states.

Golden Apples

The process differs a bit for the golden apples (green apples) which I found to be juicier and crunchier than the red ones. The skin of the golden apples is given more to getting damaged easily and even while plucking a lot of care is taken to see that it is placed very carefully into bags after plucking.

A temporary shelter is created near the cluster of the golden apple trees and the apples once plucked are got in crates to this shelter. A group of people then grade and sort it by hand and then pack it.

The golden apples are not graded on machines as that may create blemishes on its skin. I was surprised to learn that golden apples are sold much cheaper than the red ones at the orchards, between Rs 500-Rs700.

From the wholesale markets it is then bought by distributors and then the retailers, from whom you and me buy apples at Rs 250 a kilo and ten days after the apples have been plucked from trees!

So next time you bite into that apple, if you’ve read this post, you’ll hopefully eat with the awareness of this whole business of apple harvesting!

Priya Krishnan Das
Priya Krishnan Das is a self-taught artist based in Pune, India and runs a creative enterprise called Purple Soul. She is an avid solo traveler and always on the lookout for soaking up new experiences with places, food and people.

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