Monday, 28 September 2015

The Journey of an Apple from the Tree to your Kitchen!

A heavily laden apple tree
Actually, apple isn't my favourite 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 a Banjara Orchards in Thanedar, whose family has been into apple cultivation for many generations. But they were taking volunteers for taking care of 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.
A fully laden golden apple tree.
For the uninitiated, did you know that apples are not native to India? An American called 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.
The apple harvesting season begins from early June until early November depending on the altitude of the region. Higher the altitude, later will be 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 downwards. Bees are the pollinators for apples. In some orchards which are sprawling, swarms of bees are released to increase the chances of pollination. In some others bees naturally thrive and pollinate.
Sai Orchards overlooking the mountains.
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 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 57 years ago. Ruhil, with its location at a height 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 kilometre road cutting across it to reduce time and increase efficiency in loading the trucks after harvesting. So 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.
Apple varieties- clockwise from top Left- Rich Red, Red Gold, Royal and Red Royal
The varieties that are grown here are Royal, Rich Red, Golden, Red Gold. And the newer varieties recently introduced are Super Chief, Top Red, Jeromine, Red Velox, etc.  
Apples being packed.
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, totally weighing 30- 50 kgs strapped to their backs and walking uphill for a kilometre to load the trucks! Sai Orchards has permanent workers who reside on the orchard 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 3-4 months often moving from one orchard to another, for a daily wage of Rs 300. I was happy to see that in Sai Orchards, Mr. Shiv Kumar has provided basic amenities for sanitation, drinking water and food even to the daily wage workers, which is not the case in many other orchards.
Apples come in all sizes, hence need to be graded and sorted. 
Once 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. 
A crate of apples being emptied on to the conveyor belt.
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. 
The roller and polishing brushes on the machine
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. 
Bite sized apples like these are cute to look at but don't have a market so are sold to juice factories.
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.
Apples on the grading machine
The grading is based on 6 sizes, XL, L, M, S, XS and a size smaller than XS. The first 5 sizes are packed in 5 layers in carton boxes and the last one in 6 layers. So typically if you buy a whole carton box at the wholesale, this will be the arrangement.
Size
Layers in a box
No. of apples
XL
5
80
L
5
100
M
5
125
S
5
150
XS
5
175
Smallest
6
240

Apples packed and marked ready to be transported.
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. 
An apple before and after it goes through the grading and polishing machine. Notice the shine?
Good quality apples are sold anywhere in the range of Rs 1000 –Rs 1500 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 being hand graded and sorted.
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-Rs 700.
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 10 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 it with more awareness of the whole business of apple harvesting!

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