BY VISHAL GULATI
Farmers in tiny hamlets dotted over Himalayan peaks of the landlocked Lahaul Valley of Himachal Pradesh are not in high spirits amid the pandemic with government plans to promote contract farming of the highly remunerative barley for making malt whiskey have gone awry, at least this year.
But the Polish company that recently signed a pact with the state is eyeing to compensate growers owing to coronavirus by procuring locally grown high variety, disease-free Kufri Chandramukhi and Kufri Jyoti varieties of potatoes — rated the best in the world for high altitude growing — for its vodka brands.
State agriculture officials said it is not feasible to go for planting barley at this point in time as the summer cultivation season in the valley is almost near completion.
The state on November 6, 2019, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Polish spirits producer Neilson Europe to initially involve nearly 200 farmers of Lahaul-Spiti district and some pockets in Kinnaur and Chamba districts to go for contract farming of a high-yield barley variety imported from Scotland and Europe.
“We were hopeful to go for contract farming of barley this season, but the coronavirus scare had delayed it, maybe for a year now. This season we again went for the cultivation of our traditional potato crop,” Ishwar Bodh, a farmer in Darcha village, told IANS over phone.
The Lahaul Valley is known for growing prized seed potatoes, whose history goes back to 1854 when missionary A.W. Hide from Germany established a farm near Keylong, the district headquarters town some 350 km from state capital Shimla.
The seed potatoes are in great demand in states like West Bengal, Bihar and Karnataka.
The other cash crops are peas, cauliflower and hops.
As per the pact, the Polish spirits producer has proposed to invest Rs 110 crore under its project ‘Grain to Glass’ to produce the organic Himalayan single malt whisky by involving farmers in contract farming and setting up a world-class distillery.
According to the producer of the award winning spirits ZOUK and Extill, world’s single estate rye vodkas, the geographic and climatic conditions of Himachal Pradesh is on a par with the Scotland’s and many other European regions which will lead to deriving a unique and special terroir.
A total of 85 kg of barley seed of the Laureate variety per acre will be provided to each 200 farmers on a trial basis by the company. This variety is the most widely grown spring malting barley in Scotland.
Surveys by the agriculture department show the area under cash crop potato cultivation in the Lahaul Valley has declined in 10 years from 2,000 hectares to about 700 hectares.
Likewise, there has been a near decline in the cultivation of hops, a key ingredient in brewing beer, as a major cash crop in the valley owing to dumping of cheaper varieties from China, the US and Germany.
Currently, the area under vegetable cultivation in the valley is around 2,200 hectares.
Gopal Chand Sharma, an exotic vegetable grower on the outskirts of Keylong, said contract farming is a good opportunity to strengthen the local economy.
“With the help of industry by providing the latest technology, techniques and inputs, we will produce as per their requirements. This will ensure to get a decent guaranteed remuneration,” he said, adding: “We are hopeful that the contract farming will start next year.”
Last year, the Nematode virus was reported in the seed potatoes of Lahaul and farmers suffered massive losses.
Another farmer Ramesh Bodh said the locals are cultivating traditional varieties of barley. The cultivation of the exotic variety of barley would be remunerative.
Barley is grown in abundance in the cold desert, but it is mostly used for local consumption.
The valley is famous for brewing barley liquor ‘arah’ and beer ‘chhang’.
Neilson Europe President Gaurav Rajput told IANS this year owing to the coronavirus pandemic there was delay in onset of contact farming.
“We are now going for contract farming of barley in April next year. To compensate the farmers this year, we are going to procure the locally grown potatoes that are probably the world’s highest altitude produce,” he said.
The company is setting up a distillery-cum-bottling plant in the state.
State Industries Director Hans Raj Sharma told IANS the government has offered a piece of land to the company in Waknaghat area of Solan district to set up the distillery.
“The pandemic has delayed the land selection process. Very soon, the company is going to finalise it,” he added.
The Lahaul Valley, comprising over two dozen small, scattered villages, remains cut off from the rest of the world for over four months from December onwards owing to heavy snow accumulation in the Rohtang Pass (13,050 feet) — the only road link with Manali in the Kullu district.
It re-opens once snow starts thawing after mid-April.
(Vishal Gulati can be reached at email@example.com)