With harsh wintry conditions sapping the juice out of Himachal Pradesh's fruit production this season, potatoes in the picturesque Lahaul Valley have been among the few crops that have seen an increase in production.
"This year Lahaul's seed potato varieties have a bumper crop after two consecutive crop failures. The weather remained congenial throughout the season," Amar Chand Dogra, managing director of the Lahaul Seed Potato Growers Cooperative Marketing Ltd, told IANS here.
He said that in the last two years, the overall production of Lahaul potatoes had declined up to 30 percent due to unfavourable weather conditions.
"Over 50,000 bags (of 50 kg each) of Kufri Chandramukhi and 150,000 bags of Kufri Jyoti varieties have been harvested so far," he said. "The total yield is a little higher than last year's in spite of a 20 to 25 percent overall decline in potato cultivated area compared to 2010."
The landlocked Lahaul Valley is known for producing the country's high variety, disease-free, pest-resistant Kufri Chandramukhi and Kufri Jyoti varieties, with more than 90 percent of the produce going to potato-growing states like West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and northeastern states.
Currently, the marketing society is selling a bag of Kufri Chandramukhi at around Rs.750. However, it's yet to announce the rates of Kufri Jyoti.
"In the last two years, the potato yield had come down by 25-30 percent. This year it's normal and healthy," said Zile Singh, a farmer in Chokhang village.
He said a large number of farmers in the village had stopped the cultivation of potatoes after crop failure.
Added another grower Ramesh Chand: "We get only one crop in a year. If that too fails, how can we survive throughout the year? So we have switched over to the cultivation of vegetables like broccoli that are much sought after in the plains."
Horticulture experts said plentiful monsoon rains and foggy conditions in 2010 damaged the potato crop, while it was the scanty rainfall that affected the yield in 2009.
Dogra said harvesting in the Lahaul Valley is almost over and the produce has been transported to this town for marketing.
"A number of buyers from West Bengal are camping in Manali these days for purchase of Kufri Chandramukhi. Next month, buyers from Gujarat will start coming. Then Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, depending upon the onset of sowing season in their areas. They are mainly procuring the Kufri Jyoti variety," he said.
Rahul Bose, a trader for Kolkata who is camping here, said this year the size and quality of the potatoes is satisfactory.
"This year the price of the potatoes is lower compared to last year's Rs.1,100 to Rs.1,200 per 50-kg bag. Since there is hardly any difference in taste and quality between seed and table potatoes, these were also being procured for consumption," Bose added.
This year the state has witnessed a dismal production of all fruit crops, including the major crop of apples, due to hostile weather.
The history of cultivating potatoes in the valley goes back to 1854 when missionary A.W. Hide from Germany established a farm near Keylong, the district headquarters town some 200 km from here.
In 1965, the then deputy commissioner of Lahaul, K.S. Bains, brought improved varieties of potato seeds that triggered prosperity in the region.
The other cash crops of the area are peas, cauliflower and hops, besides fruit crops like apple, pear, apricot, almond and plum.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)