Does anyone in the right mind quit a secure, high-paying job in a big city and go settle down in a remote village that doesn’t even have proper electric supply?
Awungshi Shimray Augustina Sanyaola, a Tangkhul Naga lady from Poi, Ukhrul District, Manipur, was crazy enough to do just that!
She transitioned from diamond selling to apple farming.
And the gamble paid off!
Only a few weeks ago in June 2021, she was felicitated by none other than Shri N Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur himself for her feat!
And what’s that feat?
She grows apples. And that’s become news all over Manipur. What’s more, she now inspires many others to start similar ventures that could well transform Manipur into the latest apple-growing state to reckon with!
Initial Lure of City Lights
A job in a megacity is most often a dream come true for most youngsters and many would give an arm and a leg for even a toehold. Augustina too got whisked by that same lure to Delhi.
That was in 2006 when her family’s financial condition wasn’t too good.
Yet her parents – who were mere cultivators – managed to send Augustina to school till she completed her higher secondary education. After that she knew she must pool in along with her two elder brothers to help educate their three younger siblings.
She was doing well in Delhi’s apparel and electronics retail business houses.
The last job she had was a cushy, high-paying one as Boutique Manager with GordonMax, a Singaporean company and a niche brand house that deals in lab-grown diamonds.
Then in 2016 she abruptly left her job. Now that her siblings are well-educated — some are working in Delhi — Augustina longed to come back to her roots and work on the land.
Back to Roots
She returned to her remote Poi, a village not far from border pillar No.125 in Ukhrul district, next door Myanmar.
Ukhrul is one of Manipur’s most backward districts. The cultivators on the border areas – not in Poi, though – are mostly marginal and often resort to illegal cannabis and poppy cultivation to augment their income.
So Augustina’s venture assumes even more significance as it can become a massive game-changer – a realistic alternative and lucrative means of earning.
Rice, Vegetables, Fruits and Fish
Rice and vegetables are the main crops of the Poi villagers. But some live by fishing as well. “The Challou River flows by the village,” says Augustina, “ and the ngapaila fish that abounds in there is a delicacy that’s famed all over Manipur for its unique taste.”
But how did she end up apple farming?
“Well,” she replied, “My father was an avid grower of fruits and very early on I learnt the art of tending to trees from him. Growing fruit trees became my passion.”
Besides, the Northeast being mostly mild in climate, is very much suitable for temperate fruits, she added.
In their garden, they have varieties of fruits – orange, banana, walnut, lemon,peach, plum, guava, and even avocado.
That’s an amazing collection, I thought.
Besides, in the nursery, they also have mangoes. The Thai red mango, in fact, which is extra sweet and has a flavour quite unlike the Indian mangoes.
And also pink jackfruit (which I haven’t heard of), chikoo of the Thai variety which is elongated rather than round, starfruit, and seedless litchi.
While many trees are native, the exotic varieties she got from a very interesting local nursery called “Keiraowangkhem”.
How Come Apples?
She could have chosen native trees but how in the world did she come up with the idea of planting apples which are not at all native to Manipur?
“It happened one night in November 2018. Madam Soza Shaiza, a former member of the National Commission for Women (NCW), phoned to ask if I would be interested in joining a free apple plantation training. Without a second thought, I answered yes.”
“Maybe I just wanted to get out of the village for a break,” she said, laughing heartily. “That’s why I blurted an extra-loud ‘yes’ so enthusiastically that it must have jolted even Madam!”
The North Eastern Council (NEC), Shillong, sponsored the training and the Manipur unit of the North Eastern Region Community Resource (NERCORMP) Management in Ukhrul district implemented it.
It was the CSIR-IHBT that conducted the 10-day programme in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh in December 2018. Augustina was among 20 participants.
All-in-all, the training was a fantastic and eye-opening experience for Augustina. She returned before Christmas of 2018, armed with a headful of knowledge and a handful of skills, eager to kick-start her apple planting venture.
By January 2019, she had laid out a pilot 100 feet by 100 feet plot for the apple saplings.
How the Ground was Prepared
Creating an apple orchard is an elaborate process, says Augustina. Apple trees love well-drained soils which are a little sandy too.
“At least a month ahead of planting you need to prepare the pits. They should be one metre long, one metre broad, and one metre deep. You then position the sapling in the midsection of the pit, fill in the bottom half with garden soil and the top half with soil that’s a mix of topsoil, manure, and sand in equal proportions.”
Normally, the dry March month is the ideal time for planting. Watering 2 to 3 times a week is a must to ensure the plants get their requisite share of moisture. And the soil at the roots must stay moist, not flooded.
“You can choose to space the trees a metre apart or two metres apart. This is to ensure the trees get adequate space and sunlight as they grow in height. The branches of one tree must not touch those of another.”
Sounds like a lot of hard work, I said. Augustina agreed. Tending apple trees isn’t a cakewalk and went on to give me a list of what an apple farmer must do.
Some Apple Farming Do’s
Pluck all the flowers in the first year – so the trees won’t bear fruit. Else it will affect fruiting in later years.
Prune and train all the trees regularly – so the unwanted branches are discarded, the branches don’t entangle, and there’s enough breathing space and sunlight.
Immediately after every pruning, apply a mixture of lime, copper sulphate and linseed oil halfway up the trunks and on the pruned branches. This prevents insects from crawling up the trees to feed on the sap.
Thin the branches – so there’s no overloading with fruit. Else the branches will break.
Apply manure after every pruning – so there’s adequate nutrition for the plants’ healthy growth. Augustina uses only green organic farmyard and animal manure like cow, pig, or chicken dung.
Weed regularly – so the tree roots don’t have to compete for plant food with unwanted plants.
Apple Rootstocks, at Last!
Every participant in the training was given free saplings that were already about 2-3 feet tall, that is, about 6 months or so old.
By March 2019 Augustina too got her share of young trees – 55 in all – and she couldn't wait to plant all of them in the pits she had prepared.
“I got three varieties”, she says, “Anna, Golden Dorset, and Red Fuji. They are the ‘low chilling’ type that requires between 300 to 500 chilling hours.”
Fast forward to February-end 2020 and the first clusters of buds showed up. They soon blossomed into beautiful, little light pink flowers. Some are a darker shade. As advised, she removed them all.
Plucking flowers in the first years is very important in order to allow the plant to concentrate on growing, not fruiting.
The next flowering season 2021 came around and Augustina didn’t have to remove the flowers this time. By April she could see tiny fruits taking the place of the dying petals.
By the second week of June, the first harvest was ready. They lasted till the second week of July.
Usually, fruiting happens by the third year but some trees bear fruit in the second year itself.
In all Augustina gathered about 200 kgs of apples from the 52 trees that survived.
Her crop was soft and crunchy, sweet and juicy but the weight was light and that worried her at first. However, her instructor told her that that was because the trees were under-watered.
Next time, she vowed, she won’t make that mistake.
I asked Augustina, “After 10 years in Delhi, how do you reconcile yourself with life in a village?”
“Life was getting boring at first but now things are different. Especially after my first success now everyone here wants to plant apples! I pitch in by giving free training to those willing. Poi village must be known as the apple capital of Manipur!”
When you convert your passion into action, anything is possible, she says. And she’s super busy now and certainly has no regrets.
Augustina has already started giving value to her customers. The tangible benefits they get are the truly farm fresh apples at least 25% less cost!
Besides being fresh and organic, her apples are also cheaper than the ones brought in from other states. Everyone who tasted them swears that they are superior in quality in every respect.
Augustina aims to expand her orchard, of course, and plans are already afoot. She and her group of apple growers are actively looking at export opportunities as well.
But she doesn’t want to end up only selling apples when they are in season. She desires to add value to her products through the process of ‘freeze drying’, that is, lyophilisation or cryodessication.
They are trying to develop an affordable freeze drying machine in Palampur, she said, which should be ready by this year.
This process, says Augustina, is superior to dehydration and ensures the product stays as near fresh as can be.
It is more hygienic, safer, and gives better eye appeal. Moreover, one can store them at room temperature without refrigeration. Freeze-dried products can even have a shelf life of 25 years if the producer meticulously sticks to laid down procedures.
Through freeze drying anyone can have fresh apples any time of the year, in season or out of it!
From selling diamonds to growing apples, Awungshi Shimray Augustina Sanyaola’s success story in such a short time is as amazing as it is credible!
Her venture clearly depicts that there are opportunities galore for gainful livelihood. All that people need to have is determination, innovation, and grit.
With farmer-entrepreneurs like her, it is a matter of time when states like Manipur, Meghalaya and the rest of Northeast India, will transform into a veritable, organic apple hub of the country and, maybe, the world!
If you like this story, reach out to us. We, at Zizira, are committed to help make farmers like Augustina famous. Always!