Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Climbing the Apple Tree!

Cluster of apples
When I first got the idea to volunteer for apple harvesting, my heart and mind were already dancing with the apple fairies whom I would meet later. I even played one of ABBA’s songs ‘Me and Bobby and Bobby’s brother’, on loop, just because it had a line ‘climbing the apple tree’!! I had no doubt signed up for apple harvesting, but without asking myself if I would be able to do it! You know that’s typical of me. There’s a saying, “Look before you leap”. More often than not, I do the other way round. I leap, then look and then think!!
Apple plucking is good exercise. 
Tickets booked, arrangements made, a few weeks before I was to leave, a friend sent me a picture of a worker, standing high up on an apple tree, plucking apples. That was the first time I realized that I would have to climb on high branches too. Having climbed the only guava tree in my compound in my growing up years and that too, 20 years ago, I was wondering if I’d be able to do it now! Images of me clumsily climbing and even more clumsily falling down from a tree and people giggling away daunted my mind.
Single apple from a bud.
But there was no need to worry so much, I realized after reaching there. The first day I had to pluck apples, the owner of Sai Orchards, Mr. Shiv Kumar Sharma accompanied me and himself taught me the knack of plucking the fruit the right way. So, apples hang to the bud (the place from where fruiting happens), by a stalk. So care must be taken to pluck the apple with the stalk and not the bud itself. If the bud is plucked along with the stalk, it would mean one less apple or apples the following year, for there would be no fruiting since the bud is absent.
Cluster of apples from the same bud.
The fruit has to be snapped away from the bud at a slight angle and promptly. In some cases, there are multiple apples growing from the same bud. In this case, while you are snapping away one apple, the other apples must be held on to, to be plucked instantly, or else they will fall to the ground.


My illustration of myself on a apple tree :-) 
I joined a group of Nepali women for apple plucking. They were really sweet and taught me how to reach the top most branches and stand confidently on them, by leaning against braches and plucking fruits. They also gave me tips on where to place my feet and which angle to stand in so that I would be comfortable. Climbing trees in itself is no big deal. But when you have a bag around your neck, and you have to pluck apples and fill up the bag and the weight around your neck increases, that’s when you realize it is a work that involves skill. Once the bag around your neck is full of apples, you pass it on to a person standing down who will then empty the bag into a crate and then pass on an empty bag again.
Taking a break! 
The workers there are expert climbers and I marvelled at the way they climbed on to the slenderest of branches and plucked apples dangling from the very tip of each branch. I had underestimated the apple tree. The branches look pretty slender but were able to take the weight of 2 or 3 people without snapping. The workers climb on to the uppermost branches in the blink of an eye and they were also very deft in plucking. In some places where the first branch to climb on to itself was high, I used an upturned crate to stand on and then climb. I saw, and that was seconded by my new friends, that I steadily improved my climbing skills with each tree.
One of the kids of the workers. Each time I saw him he had a apple to his face! 
I felt so happy up there, perched or standing on one of the branches, surrounded by clusters of apples and green leaves, with the view of the mountains at a distance. It was as if the apple tree fairy was embracing me with her magic.
I wish there was an apple tree in my house. Climbing and plucking apples is a complete form of exercise, I realized. I involves complete stretching, twisting, turning, bending and each muscle gets stretched in the process. I did sustain scratches and insect bites, but the joy of climbing trees made me ignore those.
Look carefully, there are few leaves on this tree!
The hired workers start plucking from 7.30 in the morning until 6.30 in the evening with a one hour lunch break and 10 minute rest periods. I, of course, did not work that long. I worked for 5 hours each day I was there and thought my city bred body would not be able to work more than that.
Some trees were heavily laden, and I was surprised to know that it’s the 3rd round of plucking from those trees. From some trees, we plucked as many as 6 crates full of apples, with each crate containing around 80 apples. So that’s around 480 apples from one tree, in the 3rd round of harvesting!! I was told some bigger trees yield as many as 16 crates. Do the math!! I also saw that younger trees yielded bigger fruit than the older trees. It took approximately half hour to one hour depending on the size of the tree to pluck all the apples. The long bamboos that you see around the tree are for supporting the branches which snap due to the weight of the apples in peak season.
The best part was plucking the best fruit from any tree and digging your teeth into it. I am not exaggerating, but with each bite I took, from most apples that I plucked directly and ate, there was juice squirting all over my face and hands. There were that juicy and crunchy, especially the golden variety.
I took this picture from one of the top most branches! 
I am so glad that I have ticked tree climbing and apple plucking off my long list of many things to experience and enjoy! But then, there are other fruits to pluck and so many more trees to climb!


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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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