How China’s Walnut Trade Caught Up & Why J&K’s Is on the Decline

Once the largest producer of walnuts in the world, Kashmir is now slowly losing out on its famed produce. Why?

6 min read
Image of a Kashmiri walnut farmer used for representational purposes.

On a hot summer day in August 2011, 40-year-old Tanveer Ahmad Dar of Chanapora, Srinagar left his job at HDFC bank and started a walnut processing unit in South Kashmir’s Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama, 43 kilometres from Srinagar.

Within three years, Dar’s business dreams crashed, as for the first time, Californian walnuts were introduced into the Indian dry fruits market.

“In 2014, when Kashmir was ravaged by floods, the dry fruits distributors and dealers across India looked for an alternative and asked the government to import walnuts from California. Since then, Kashmiri walnuts have lost market value, and as a result, 10 out of 11 walnut processing units have turned sick in the Lassipora industrial estate,” lamented Dar, whose unit is also on the verge of turning sick.

Why Are Buyers Choosing Californian Walnuts Over Kashmiri Ones?

Once, Kashmir used to be the largest exporter of walnuts in India, but with time, the production depleted – the markets across India are now flooded with walnuts from California, Chile, Holland and Turkey. This has been a major cause of concern among local growers, dealers and exporters.

Dar says:

“It is bizarre and deplorable that despite Kashmiri walnuts being organic, the inorganic Californian walnuts have entered the Indian market. The buyers are completely neglecting the medicinal values of the Kashmiri walnut and getting lured by the fancy packaging of the Californian walnut. In the Valley, the growers do not use fertilisers or pesticides, and this is why the Kashmiri walnuts have great nutritional value with tremendous health benefits.”
India stands eighth in walnut production among other producers of the world. In India, Jammu & Kashmir account for a major part of the production of walnut in the country. The Valley produces about 60,000 tonnes from an area of 63,000 hectares.

In Kashmiri, walnuts are called ‘Douen’.

According to the Department of Horticulture, Kashmir, the share of walnut from the region towards the national production is 98 percent. The government continues to claim that 80 percent of walnuts produced in India come from the villages of Kashmir, and the kernels produced from Kashmiri walnuts are considered to be among the world’s best.

‘Export Earnings From Walnuts Have Been Stagnant’

Dar, however, has managed to figure out three reasons for the decline in demand for Kashmiri walnuts.

“Firstly, there is a lack of advanced horticultural policies from the government which includes the concept of high density planting, which means more production on less land; secondly, the lack of market intervention scheme which would have fetched growers the satisfactory rates and avoid possible losses; and thirdly, the lack of fruit mandis in the Kashmir Valley which cause price fluctuations and prevent growers from getting good rates.”

Kashmiri walnuts are exported in the form of nuts as well as kernels. For the last few years, the export earnings have been stagnant.

Dar, who is also the general secretary of the Kashmir Chamber of Horticulture & Agriculture Association, said that, during 2016-17, the total walnut production in Kashmir was 2.66 lakh metric tonnes; in 2017-18 the production did not increase by much and touched 2.75 lakh metric tonnes, and in 2018-19, the production sluggishly inched towards 2.79 lakh metric tons.

Apple production on the other hand was previously 19 lakh metric tonnes, and now it has increased to 23 lakh metric tonnes.

Problems That Plague Kashmir’s Walnut Industry

In July 2010, Javed Hussain Kumar completed his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in marketing from the University of Pune and established his own walnut processing unit in Lassipora, Pulwama.

Interestingly, Kumar’s is the lone survivor among all 11 walnut processing units inside the Lassipora industrial estate. “My unit is also under stress but I have managed to survive because the walnut business is my ancestral job. My family helped me a lot to come out of this stress. Last year I suffered 15 lakh rupees loss and I was forced to sell stocks at minimal rates,” said Kumar.

He, however, highlighted the major problems which plague the walnut industry in Kashmir:

“In the Valley, I have observed a shortage of quality planting, poor orchard management, and long gestation periods. For instance, a typical walnut tree in Kashmir takes about 15 years to fetch the first crop. The reason why our production is down is mainly because we have 40-50 year old walnut trees and those are not yielding quality production. We need to rejuvenate the sick orchards immediately to increase the production.”

He also added: “Kashmiri walnuts can’t compete with the produce from developed countries owing to its small size and colour. The need of the hour is to encourage fresh walnut plantations along the lines of apple plantations. Farmers must be provided good quality grafted plants to bring more areas under walnut cultivation with high yielding varieties. The walnut processing unit holders need to adopt international standards when it comes to grading, processing and packing,” said 32-year-old Kumar.

Walnut Trade: How China Became An Exporter From An Importer

Kumar also says that till 2010, the biggest importer of Kashmiri walnuts was China, but over the past eight years China has managed to produce the crop, and they currently export 50 percent of their total production. “Due to the government's futuristic policies, China has climbed from walnut-importing country to exporting country. But in Kashmir the story is completely different. Kashmir once was the second largest walnut producer of the world and currently, it may not even fall among the top ten countries of the world,” said Kumar.

Senior revenue officials in the J&K administration attributed the decreasing production of walnuts in the valley to the cutting of walnut trees without seeking government permission.

How Lockdown Post-Abrogation Of 370 Affected Kashmir’s Walnut Trade

“Under the J&K Preservation of Specified Trees Act, 1969, a walnut tree can neither be felled nor pruned, without permission from the revenue department, even if it stands on private land. It has got special status mainly to protect the walnut economy. Yet people do not want the tree to grow and cut it as per their will,” said an official.

In August 2019, when the union government stripped J&K of its special status, the entire region went into an unprecedented and endless period of lockdown.

During that time, the cross-continental journey of walnuts  from California became a better deal for traders despite the sky-high tariffs.

In October 2019, militants in the Kashmir Valley attacked fruit-laden trucks amid the government-imposed communication blackout, which made buyer-seller coordination even more difficult.

‘Govt Focussing On Making Dedicated Nurseries To Grow Walnuts’

The high import duty of 132 percent on walnuts from the US and 110 percent for shipments from Chile did not stop imports. The walnut stock in Kashmir spoiled, and both growers as well as walnut processing unit holders incurred heavy losses.

Now this year again, the walnut cultivators are worried about their stocks as they claim that the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow over it. This year they again fear that prices may go down further.

Kumar said:

“The political uncertainty in Kashmir doesn’t allow us to be associated with this business anymore. The day isn’t too far away when this precious crop will completely vanish from the Valley. If the government does not do anything quickly you will see, after ten years, that the crop is nowhere in sight.”

The cultivators said that the government must bring walnut trade onto the international graph at the earliest, and help the cultivators with better rates.

When The Quint contacted a senior official from the department of Horticulture, he admitted that walnut production in Kashmir was decreasing. “It is true that our apple production is increasing and walnut production is decreasing. But we need to know that apples grow in proper orchards while walnuts grow in an unorganised manner. Now the government is focusing on making nurseries to grow walnut grafting plants which will increase the production level,” he said.

(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir and he tweets @irfanaminmalik. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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