The intrusion of walnut kernels from California and Chile are eating into the market share of Kashmiri kernels. Those associated with the walnut industry in Kashmir are now finding it tough to survive the losses they have incurred this year. They say that the demands are at their lowest this year.

The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is globally known for the production of organic walnuts. In the past seven decades, valley-based growers and dealers have been engaged in the walnut business and have a pan-India and global network.

Kashmir produces three types of walnuts: Wonth, Kagazi, and Burzul of which Wonth is sold locally while the other two are exported. Walnuts are the largest produce after the Apples of Kashmir valley. Every year, Kashmir grows nearly two lakh metric tons of walnuts on 46197 hectares of land. This contributes more than 95 per cent of total walnut production in India.

Though walnuts are grown across the Kashmir valley, three districts including Anantnag and Pulwama in the south and Kupwara in the northern belt of the Valley are the major production centres. In these three districts areas like, Kralpora, Tangdhar Trehgam, Ashmuqam, Kohdipora, Dachnipora, Kokernag, Kandiwara, Sangawari, Tahab, Arihal, Aglar and Naristan are known for walnut production.

There are hundreds of skilled and unskilled labourers involved in this sector, and are engaged every year with the beginning of harvesting season in July-August. This year, the story for those associated with this sector has been quite different and challenging. Both growers and dealers are in dismay, and reckon that the local industry won't survive if the situation remains the same for the next couple of years.

Bahadur Khan, President of Dry Fruit Association Kashmir said that the import of walnut kernels from Chile and California has cast a shadow on the local industry in the Kashmir valley. "The market value and demand for Kashmiri kernels has come down. The rates have come down and our market share has been reduced due to the 'intrusion' of the importe walnuts," he said.

He said that while fresh fruits have no Goods and Services Tax (GST) but it's imposed on the Kashmiri kernels which "dents it even more as the import of kernels from Chile and California has destroyed the sector and weare finding it hard to survive."

Khan said that heritage walnuts grown in Kashmir are organic, and "the trees were planted by our ancestors some eight decades ago, and continue to give a good yield."

He said that the rates of kernels vary depending on the quality, "the price usually starts from Rs 200 rupees and can go up to RS 1500-1600 per kilogramme. However the top quality has a lower yield, barely 15 percent of the total production. The best quality walnut is white and no pesticide or chemical is used by growers."

However he foresees a dark future and claims that now "there is zero demand for Kashmiri kernels in the Indian markets. Buyers tell us about the available stock of imported walnuts from California and Chile. But compared to Kashmiri kernels those are just good in colour and size but are not organic."

According to him, "the Horticulture department in Kashmir is withdrawing salaries worth crores of rupees and doing no good to the growers. They have not helped the growers across the valley in these trying times, and schemes and funds meant to be used for the upliftment of industry have not gone to deserving growers."

Rahim Ahmad, a grower of Tangdhar sector in north Kashmir's kupwara district also expressed concerns that the market had fallen this year. "Kernels aren't even fetching the amount spent on the labour," he said.

Another grower from the same sector, Umar Farooq, said that the demand is down by at least 80 percent. "Kernels that would fetch between Rs 1200 to 1500 rupees or more in the last couple of years are hardly getting Rs 300 to 400 this year. Dealers refuse to take our product despite it being good quality. The walnut industry has been degraded at both local and national level," he said.

Citing an example, Farooq said that only skilled and trained workers are engaged in harvesting walnuts from trees. They charge up to Rs 1500 rupees for each tree, which is fair given the amount of risk involved. The walnut shells are then broken and the kernels harvested, mainly done indoors and women are also engaged in this.

"We are already facing a loss and many growers have not even harvested walnuts this year. It takes a lot of hard work, blood and sweat. Many have suffered a heavy margin of losses,'' said Farooq.

He added that the Tangdhar sector is the largest exporter of kernels, and even his small village Sulieman produces more than 100 tons of high-quality kernels. This year, he said less than 50 per cent of the total production has gone to the markets. The number of labourers and workers engaged in the entire process has also reduced.

Zubair Ahmad, a worker, said that the labourers were now forced to look for alternate work or move to towns and cities to earn money. "We are told that there is no work and demand. There is nothing for us to do here," he said.

Rashid Ahmad Ganie, a resident of Ashmuqam village in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, a grower as well as a dealer, stated that both rates and demand are down. "Every season with the harvesting, I used to export more than 3000 packs of kernels ahead of Diwali. Each pack weighed 6 KGs. With time demand would go higher," Ganie said.

However, for the first time ever, this year "less than 50 boxes have gone to markets ahead of Diwali. This shows the demand in the markets that was once flooded with Kashmiri kernels. With almost zero demand the rates have come down drastically to the extent that people associated with this industry are finding it hard to pay their workers,'' he said.

Waseem Ahmad, a worker, claimed that a lot of his colleagues who would keep themselves free during the walnut harvesting have already left for cities to earn a living. "This year a lot of workers have been disengaged very early. Small-scale buyers have left it halfway given the number of liabilities involved," he said.

Ali Mohammad, a grower from south Kashmir's Pulwama said that there is some demand but not as much as it used to be. "Rates and demand have come down compared to previous years. Though there was good production this year, the intrusion from international markets has plugged our supply chain. We used to do a good business ahead of diwali every year but the situation is different now," he said.

Dr. Mohammad Amin, of the Fruit Science Department at Sher-e- Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST) Kashmir said that the walnuts of Kashmir are completely organic. "No pesticides, fertilisers, or chemicals are used. These are by default organic walnuts," he said adding, "walnut kernels of Kashmir are rich in oil, medicines and are used as a source of food."

According to Dr. Amin now "anything can be imported and exported from anywhere in the globe. In free trade, walnut kernels would come from anywhere." He added that Kashmiri walnut trees aren't planted at regular orchards. "All the walnuts in Kashmir are seedling versions. All the walnuts are different, a single walnut in Kashmir won't match with the rest. While in California and Chile single varieties are grown and the product that comes from there is uniform in terms of size and colour," he said.

"Kashmir has a mix and requires sorting and grading of the walnuts on the basis of size and colour. Even the size is not uniform. Each walnut in Kashmir behaves differently," he added and suggested that growers must focus on the varieties and be specific.

"In walnuts every plant is different," said Dr Amin, "and a single variety of walnut grown would do much better compared to the existing system." In high-density trees, the focus must be on variety, he explained, "the graft is done in high-density plants and they remain small in size. To be uniform, the focus must be on variety only to overcome the current situation."

Director Horticulture Kashmir, G R Mir said to combat the low prices and demand those associated with this industry need to get proactive, "they have been working traditionally for many years now. They need to compete in the market and adapt new ways, and techniques."

According to him, now many Kashmir valley based fruit and walnut growers sell their products on online platforms, but there are some "who keep beating the chest. Our department is reaching out to the growers with different techniques, subsidies and other incentives for their benefit. But they also have to change their style of work for their own good."