Monday, December 8, 2014

Missing Oranges


Orange sellers, with their dokos filled with the famed Mandarin variety of Sikkim oranges, should have become a common sight around town by now, but even a visit to the haats will offer only scant pickings at present. The Orange harvest has been poor this season, with growers from most parts of the State reporting that the fruit is not ripening properly this time and has not bulked to its usual size either. Except the growers from Dzongu everyone else is complaining of poor quality and smaller size oranges in the orchards this season. The effect can be seen in Lall Bazaar, where, at this time of the year, the stalls would be overflowing with oranges, but now very few hawkers have the Mandarin oranges on sale. The token presence of Sikkim Mandarin at the organic stall at Lall Bazaar in Gangtok is sourced from orchards in nearby 32 Mile, Sang, Martam, Sumik Lingzey and surrounding areas. The oranges are not even close [in looks or taste] to the tempting appeal of the Mandarin.

“This should have been the peak season for the orange market, but this year supply is very low and the quality of oranges is very poor,” said one hawker.
He confirmed that the fruits are not of proper colour are small in size and sour in taste. Orange prices are most quoted per piece, and depending on the size, anything from Rs. 4 to Rs. 10 per piece is being quoted. Nagpur oranges traditionally go for substantially lower. The stalls in Gangtok are trying to sell these at last year’s rates, but are unsure whether the customers will “pay the price” given the poor quality on offer.
The more informed buyers have already thumbed down this year’s produce, as the Sikkim State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation Ltd. [SIMFED] found out when it took the Sikkim Oranges to the auction in Siliguri. SIMFED facilitates Sikkim’s orange growers in reaching their produce to the auction centre in Siliguri. It has been doing so since 2011, and has consistently fetched good price for the Sikkim Mandarin. It has been different this year with most of the produce from Sikkim fetching half of last year’s rates.
Tshering Tamang, Marketing Inspector [MI], SIMFED informs that this year three lots have been auctioned in Siliguri - two lots from Yangang and its surrounding areas in South Sikkim and one consignment from Dzongu, North Sikkim.
The first lot of 25,000 pieces from Yangang fetched Rs. 1,600/1,000 pcs [Rs. 1.60 per pc] while the second lot, also of 25,000 pcs from the same area, fetched Rs. 1,700/1,000 pc [Rs. 1.70/pc]. The Oranges from Dzongu fetched much prices at the auction, receiving Rs. 3,400/1,000 pcs [Rs. 3.40/pc]. Last season, Sikkim’s oranges were auctioned for a maximum of Rs. 3.40/pc while the worst of the lot received Rs. 1.80/pc. Sikkim Oranges did around Rs. 52 lakh of business at the Siliguri auction last season.
“This year, the Yangang oranges are not of good size, and lack the traditional vibrant colour and taste which is why the bidders are offering such low price,” explains Mr. Tamang.
Another Inspector, Premjit Rai, who is the incharge for the Namchi Sub Division, believes, “The orange business from Turuk, Sadam, Suntaley and its surrounding areas will go down 80% compared to last year.” The volume of harvest in these areas is normal this year, he informs, but adds that the size and quality has gone down drastically.
“Some of the fruits are the size of lemons and have remained green in colour as well,” he shares.
Growers suspect that the crop has been poor this year because of the rains were weak when required. The monsoon was heavy only towards the end of the season this year, it may be recalled. Orange orchards mostly rely on rainfall since they are traditionally developed on the drier patches of farmland.
“Wherever we visited, the farmers blamed the low quality this year on rainfall shortage,” informs MI Tamang.
Interestingly, MI Premjit, during his visits to South district farmers, also found most of them complaining of tree-related diseases.
“Some of the trees leaves have turned yellow and some have even gone dry,” he said.
This is where the wisdom of 95-year-old Indraman Rai from Barbing under Rey-Mindu GPU in East Sikkim could be put to good use. Mr. Rai has been growing oranges of the past 50 years, his orchard of around 300 trees having stood him in good stead for half a century now.
Dipping into his wealth of traditional knowledge base, he dismisses the rainfall shortfall and disease excuses. Nature, he says, runs in a cycle and sometimes, after a few years of good harvest, the orchards fail.
“My experience of the past 50 years tells me that some seasons will be like this only. It is neither shortage of rainfall nor because of some tree related diseases… Sometimes nature itself won’t allow a good crop for reasons only she knows,” he whispers.
As an example, he points out that hailstorms during the flowering season of spring had devastated orange orchards across the state last year, but the buds which survived grew into robust fruits and fetched good value in the market.
That however does not mean that the scourge of disease can be overlooked, he stresses.
“The main enemy of orange trees is the ‘ring worm’ which enters by making a small hole at the base and eats up the entire tree from inside. First the leaves turn pale, and then the entire tree dries up,” he explains.
The remedy he suggests is to first find the entry hole, widen it with a strong wire or a small screwdriver and then insert cotton soaked either in Dettol or Petrol/ kerosene oil as deep as possible and then plug the hole with red mud paste… problem solved. One wonders how many growers are trying out such a remedy or have been provided other organic options to get rid of the parasite.
“If you follow it carefully, your tree will give healthy production for 60 years,” the 95 year old orange growers claims, adding that a healthy tree can produce around 4,000 fruits in a single season.
Besides, for healthy produce, he suggests that farmers protect honeybees in their farms. Bees are the primary pollinators of orange. Mr. Rai insists that honeybees be protected from “Chibey”, a bird believed to feed voraciously on bees. Interestingly, keeping orchards free of Chibey also keeps them reasonably free of other birds building nests in orange trees since the presence of Chibey encourages birds to nest since it also chases away eagles [which prey on smaller birds] apart from feeding on bees.
And then there is the need to keep the orchards properly weeded. Do these well and the orchards will remain healthy and bountiful save when nature decides to give them an occasional rest, Mr. Rai states.
As for production at his orchard, Mr. Rai says he won’t know that any more since he has not been a hands-on orange grower for the past nearly 15 years and has handed it over to his grandchildren. What he does remember that one year he tried counting the number of oranges his orchard produced. He stopped counting when the count reached one lakh! What did he earn from oranges that year? A mere Rs. 7,000, he recalls with a big laugh.
Mr. Rai is visibly disturbed when informed about the failure of oranges in South Sikkim this season. It appears that when he started his orchard 50 years ago, he purchased his saplings from Namchi at Rs. 3 per sapling. “And I learned most of the techniques of growing orange from that area,” he recollects.
Here’s to hoping that oranges are only showing a cyclical dip in production as Mr. Rai believes the case to be and the growers find rejuvenation options by dipping into their traditional knowledge base instead of hoping that disinterested babus suddenly improve their work culture and assist more earnestly in the recovery process.

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