A couple of weeks ago we brought to you the amazing story of Augustina Shimray, the lady diamond-seller-turned-apple-grower from Manipur’s Ukhrul District. Now we bring you stories of apple growers from Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills district. Meghalaya is home to many varieties of fruits and is regarded as the primary gene centre of the citrus species. Sitting in the midst of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Meghalaya (and the entire northeastern India) can become a veritable paradise for fruit-bearing tree farming, including apple farming, which significantly change the economy of the region for the better.
The Plight of Meghalaya Farmers
Do you know that in Meghalaya 81% of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood?
That's right. And the majority of these farmers is either small or marginal. Very few have land holdings and most of those who have can boast of only about half an acre or less to their name.
The rest own no land. They either lease them from landowners or work as farmhands.
Year after year, these farmers toil to grow crops for the markets of Shillong, the district towns, and beyond. What do they grow? The same as everyone else. Cabbages, potatoes, beans, carrots, peas, and such like. Others raise cash crops like chilies, ginger, and black pepper. Life for most farmers is existential, subsistent and no way to turn back, nowhere to run to. They just go on. In the hamlets of West Khasi Hills’ Dewsaw, Mynsain, and Pungsanniang too, the scenario was as humdrum.
Things were, however, set to change after a group of 10 farmers departed from tradition and ventured into growing apples.
Apples: New Crop, New Hope
It all started in 2018 after the Shillong-headquartered North Eastern Council (NEC) got some funds to train farmers in apple farming. NEC’s project partner, the North Eastern Region Community Resource Management (NERCORMP), was directed to identify beneficiary villages for the venture.
Under NERCORMP’s aegis, the local NGO, Khawkylla Community Resource Management Society mobilized the identification drive to rope in farmers for the ambitious pilot project.
Bah Borbashemphang Saiborne, Khawkylla’s project technical officer, zeroed in on three villages: Dewsaw, Mynsain, and Pungsanniang. But he soon discovered that most farmers were unenthusiastic. They haven’t heard of such a venture. Skeptical and afraid that things might not work out, they were far from prepared to take risks.
Bah Bor somehow managed to convince a few individuals and formed the group of 10 willing farmers who soon found themselves on the free apple farming trainee list.
Westwards to Palampur
So, in February 2019 the group finally reached campus at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, in the CSIR-IHBT - the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, a constituent laboratory of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
The training turned out to be a power-packed, in-depth experience for them. They thoroughly immersed themselves in the learning and returned regenerated and armed to the teeth with new-found knowledge. Now they’re empowered to do something potentially lifestyle transforming and enriching.
And till date, Bah Bor continues to be their inspiration, assisting them with technical advice, following up with their progress, and seeing to it that they remain on track.
Two years later here are the stories of four of these new apple farmers of West Khasi hills.
Bah Elkin Kurbah of Dewsaw Nongthliew
As the crow flies Dewsaw appears to be only a few kilometers due west of Shillong. The road to Dewsaw, however, is a circuitous 45 km drive that skirts the Umiam valley, first to the south and west and then back north and eastwards.
Dewsaw Nongthliew is where Bah Elkin Kurbah, his wife, and six children live and work on their small, one and a half acre farm. They grow vegetables that have a ready market such as carrots, beans, cabbages, peas, beet, and maize.
They also keep farm animals – pigs, cows, goats, and chickens. Life is tough but not bad and they get by peacefully like everyone else.
The farm already has fruit bearing trees like plum, peach, and pear, besides the indigenous types like sohphie, sohiong (black cherry), and sohphoh Khasi (wild apple), and so apples seemed to him the next natural step to upgrade to!
Bah Elkin didn’t hesitate to volunteer. “What’s there to lose?” he reasoned, “The training was free with all expenses paid and there was the golden option of seeing the world beyond Dewsaw so I quickly said yes.”
Eagerly to Work
Back from Palampur in late February 2019 Bah Elkin immediately began readying the ground one month ahead of planting, according to instructions.
He dug pits of three cubic feet each and prepared the compost with a mix of farmyard manure, sand, and topsoil in equal proportions to fill in the bottom half of the pit. Garden soil would fill in the top half.
When the 150 saplings finally arrived in March-end he and his entire family at once got down to work. By the following year they had grown as tall as a man’s height except for ten that didn’t survive.
Their instructors had told them that when the first flowers appear they must shake them off the trees and not allow them to form fruit. This is important for the trees to first concentrate on root and stem development. Usually, by the third to fifth years the farmers can expect their first harvest. Fruiting easily continues for 20-25 years.
Bah Elkin got his first fruits in the second year itself from around fifty of his trees. Not a huge quantity, he says, just about a kilo or two from each tree but that was exciting enough for the villagers.
Apples are novelties there and his family and friends enjoyed them heartily as never before, as did the village urchins who helped themselves to the fruits when no one was around!
Bah Elkin has charted a clear roadmap. “I think I must look beyond traditional vegetables. Everybody is growing them everywhere. It is high time I do something new,” he asserted.
He soon found out that apples are lucrative business when they sold for rupees two hundred a kilo – less than the market price but better in quality and absolutely natural and fresh.
What surprised him was the trees’ rapid growth. They start bearing fruit within two to three years, unlike the local trees which take five to eight years. They are also easier to tend, needing only moist but well-drained soil and proper nutrition at proper times, especially during fruiting.
Yes, he plans on expanding his apple crop as well as well as starting a nursery for saplings to sell to farmers who want them.
Although Bah Elkin didn’t go to school beyond third standard, he is he is hooked unto one technology that he saw in Palampur – Freeze Drying. He sees a great future in that and hopes one day to try it to enhance value to his apples.
Kong Ribiona Basaiawmoit of Mynsain
7 km west of Dewsaw is Mynsain. Thirty-year old Kong Ribiona Basaiawmoit lives there with her parents and ten other siblings.
She was already an associate of NERCORMP from 2011 to 2017 and so when Bah Bor asked her if she was interested in the apple project she unhesitatingly grabbed the chance and trooped to Palampur.
Her 150 saplings arrived in five varieties: Anna, Golden Dorset, Red Kam, Pink Lady, and the green variety, Granny Smith.
The first flowers showed up in March 2020 and she shook them all off.
The second flowering came around and metamorphosed into tiny fruits a month later but one day Nature gave her a rude shock. Hail pounded the village and destroyed much of the baby fruits.
“When that happens you can do nothing except grin and bear it,” she mused. Still, she was grateful for the few fruits that survived and matured. She enjoyed them thoroughly with family and friends. “People say the apples are too, too good!”
Grappling with Apple Farming
“It is very important to water the trees in dry seasons and to apply manure at least once a year when the fruits begin to appear,” says Kong Ribiona. “We must also prune them so that branches of one tree don’t touch those of another and all trees get adequate sunlight. We also brush the trunks and newly pruned branches with Bordeaux mixture, which is a combination of lime, copper sulphate, and water.”
That’s to prevent fungal and insect attacks.
Kong Ribiona’s farm is a tiny, three thousand square foot affair and so she cannot plant as many trees as she wished. Nevertheless, she has already started to develop more saplings from grafts to supply to other farmers.
Bah Arphinesstar Lawrynniang
About 6 km from Mairang town is the tiny hamlet of Pungsanniang which is isn’t sleepy anymore now but bustles with excitement because of Bah Arphinesstar Lawrynniang’s never-before planted apple trees.
Of the 150 trees that he planted 10 didn’t survive and only 3 bore fruit this year. Bah Arphinesstar also dreams of making it big growing apples although he has no plans to give up growing traditional crops alongside them, which is an excellent idea. Besides, he wants to create a sapling nursery.
Bah Kennes Kurbah
He was not in the group of 10 but being a NERCORMP associate, Bah Kennes Kurbah, 33, received 50 apple saplings to plant in his farm in Pungsanniang.
Upbeat about the whole exercise, he confides he loves fruit trees. His family farm already sports more than 10 types of fruit-bearing trees that include citrus, pear, and plum.
“This place is excellent for fruit trees,” he declares, “and I know apples will get a good market. I want to plant as many apple trees as I can.”
The Secret behind Healthy Apple Trees
A few of Bah Kennes’ apple trees are over 10 feet tall while the others are an average 7 feet. He discovered that’s because he planted them in a place where a pigsty once stood. The soil was extra rich and aided faster tree growth compared to the rest. He now knows that correct nutrition is of paramount importance for the trees to grow strong and healthy.
This young farmer has made up his mind. He knows now that apples can change the economy of his village and intends to one day put it on the map as the apple village of the district.
That’s a long road from now but to achieve that goal he has already started his strategy of working hard and working smart. How?
Firstly, he must protect his farm from human predators! “It’s frustrating to find your fruits stolen” he says. He was forced to keep guard throughout this year’s fruiting season because some naughty village boys shamelessly stole them. This time around, he is building fences to prevent theft in the next season.
Next, he has a nursery plan to create saplings for supply to other farmers so that in a matter of two to three years Pungsanniang will teem with apple orchards.
Being young, agile, and still unhitched, Bah Kennes will go very far in his venture. He has roped in his parents, brothers, and sisters to realize that great apple growing dream of his.
The Future of Apple Plantation
These four apple growers of West Khasi hills have proven that apple farming has the power to mitigate poverty and improve economy.
The steps are still of the baby kind and the apple tree population is yet too small that even with full fruiting, the supply would be only enough for themselves. More yield will be possible only with more trees.
With hard work, smart work, and the active support from agencies such as NEC and NERCORM, and committed individuals like Bah Bor, more farmers of West Khasi hills will surely come and join in and maybe become local Johnny Appleseeds to convert Meghalaya into apple growing country!