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Features

Feature: Saffron farmers fight climate change with indoor farming in Kashmir

Irfan Amin Malik

To tackle the impacts of climate change and increase saffron production, farmers in Kashmir have resorted to a new technique: indoor farming.

Although indoor farming of saffron – the costliest spice in the world – is at an experimental stage, farmers are hoping it will increase crop production as the process is affordable.

Farmers started growing the crop indoors after Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir, (SKUAST), in 2018 started a research initiative to explore indoor saffron farming.

The experiment was conducted to tackle the heavy toll of climate change on saffron production, mainly during the past 15 years. For example, the official figures from the department of agriculture show that the area under saffron cultivation in Kashmir has shrunk by 63% from around 5,707 hectares in 1996 to 3,500 hectares in 2017. It was further reduced to 1,116 hectares in 2020.

Over the past two decades, the production of saffron has also fallen from 16 metric tonnes a year to 5.6 metric tonnes a year.

A senior scientist at SKUAST, Dr. Bashir Allie, who heads the Saffron Research Station, created a field awareness programme for enhancing saffron yield in Kashmir’s saffron belt, Pampore. “We started the experiment of indoor saffron farming in 2018-19, and within a span of three years, we have successfully demonstrated the new technology to farmers. Indoor farming is the future because all of our crops are getting impacted due to extreme weather events or climate change,” he told The Wire.

He claimed that the indoor saffron farming experiment is better than outdoor farming and that “there is no chance of failure in it.”

“Both the quality as well as the quantity can be maintained in indoor saffron farming because a farmer does not require land and there is zero impact of climate on the farming activity. Also, the farming is completely soilless as trays and racks are used for the farming, ” he said.

The farmers, including those who do not have land, only require a fully ventilated room where they can put the corms in the month of June, five months before the harvesting period. The corms are kept in trays and require around 100 days of darkness before the yield is harvested.

The farming process starts in August, the flowering begins between October 10 and 15, followed by harvesting in November.

A local saffron farmer, Abdul Majeed Wani, who is using indoor farming methods, said that due to a consistent drop in the crop production and quality, farmers needed an alternative way to grow it.

Wani, who is also the chairman of the Saffron Growers’ Association, Kashmir, told The Wire that during the past two decades, lack of sufficient rains resulted in dwindling saffron production, due to which many growers quit saffron farming and converted their fields into apple orchards.

“Eventually, indoor farming has come as a shot in the arm for Kashmir’s saffron industry. The crop production can be tremendously enhanced since anyone in the Valley can now easily grow saffron. Indoor farming is cheap, affordable and futuristic,” he added.

Dr. Allie said that open saffron farming is confined to Pulwama district of southern Kashmir, but indoor saffron farming can be done in all districts of Kashmir due to which crop production will increase manifold.

“The current challenges of dwindling saffron production, shrinking of the land for the production of the crop due to urbanisation, climate change, and low quality of the crop will fade away once a farmer resorts to indoor farming,” he added.

Failure to revive saffron cultivation

According to a 2020 news report, around 22,000 families in the Kashmir region were cultivating saffron a decade ago. However, it has reduced to 16,000 families.

The lack of an irrigation system has also contributed to a decline in saffron cultivation.

In 2010-11, the government had introduced the National Saffron Mission to help saffron farmers to irrigate their fields. However, the government failed to achieve its goals. Wells and irrigation sprinklers, borewell equipment and pipes can be seen lying broken in the saffron fields.

On the other hand, the unseasonal snowfall, heavy or scanty rainfall, and hailstorms have repeatedly caused economic losses to farmers.

According to the data provided by the department of agriculture, Kashmir, the area, productivity and production of saffron under traditional methods have drastically fallen due to climate change.

In 1997, the total area under saffron cultivation was 5,707 hectares, which, as mentioned earlier, was reduced to 1,116 hectares in 2020. In 1997, the total saffron production was 16 million tonnes compared to 5 MT in 2020.

The 2014 floods worsened the situation and caused a huge damage to the region’s agriculture and horticulture sector. For example, the valley recorded a production of just 3 MT as compared to 16 MT in 1997.

The loss of saffron’s production and productivity is also attributed to record-breaking weather events. For instance, on February 28, 2016, Kashmir recorded the hottest February in 76 years with a temperature of 20.6°C. In 2020, Kashmir recorded the hottest August in 39 years with a temperature of 35.7°C. In 2021, the Valley witnessed the hottest July in eight years with the record temperature of 35°C.

Amid rising temperatures, the Valley also witnessed record-breaking drop in temperatures. On January 30, 2021, Kashmir saw the coldest night after 30 years.

Separately, charity organisation ActionAid’s 2007 report on climate change in Kashmir said that the average temperatures in the region have risen by 1.45°C.

Is it commercially viable?

To tackle these challenges, Wani, along with six farmers, has been growing saffron in trays at their respective homes in Pampore. They say the results are “encouraging”.

“A farmer can sow one quintal of seeds and produce 120-125 grams of the saffron crop. This year, a gram of saffron is being sold for Rs 250 and accordingly, 1 kilogram of saffron costs Rs 2.5 lakh,” he said.

If indoor saffron farming goes well, it will be icing on the cake for Kashmir’s saffron industry as in May 2020, the local saffron received the geographical indication (GI) tag. It’s a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin, possess a specific quality or reputation.

However, some farmers, including agriculture scientists in the Valley, still doubt if indoor saffron farming is commercially viable.

A scientist at SKUAST told The Wire that indoor farming is still at an experimental stage and a lot of experimentation and research is needed before farmers can adopt this method to grow crops.

“I do not think indoor saffron farming is commercially viable as of now. It is too early to say if it is going to be successful for Kashmir’s saffron industry,” the scientist said, on the condition of anonymity.

Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad, who is deputy director at Kashmir’s meteorological department, said that the possible climate change effects can be tackled through indoor farming, provided the adequate temperature and humidity is adjusted.

For example, from sowing to harvesting, a farmer can manually adjust the room temperature required for different crops, including saffron.

However, a farmer involved in indoor farming has to be aware about many things – photo period, light intensity, and temperature, scientists added.

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