THE Northern Areas are rich in natural resources with lower pest and disease pressure. The climate is dry and the land fertile. With these advantages and characteristics, the area produces varieties of fruits and vegetables, which is the major source of income of the people. Adoption of modern techniques can further augment production of these fruits and substantially increase the income of the farmers alleviating their poverty.

The poor infrastructure and absence of farm-to-market roads are the obstacles in the way of the farmers to gain advantages of the natural potential of their area. The produce gets spoiled before reaching the markets, and hence has to be sold in local markets which cannot absorb the production.

Thus farmers are deprived of the actual benefits and are compelled to take little interest in fruit production.

The product: The farmers of the area have been producing fruits, especially dried fruits, for centuries. The climatic condition is so favourable that almost every household has plants and trees of various fruits scattered all over the fields.

One of the major produce of the area is apricot. Trees of apricot are found everywhere, especially on marginal land which cannot sustain cash crops. Small communities in villages produce large quantities of apricot, but cannot get a good price of their produce to improve their lot.

According to an independent survey carried out some 10 years back, the estimated production of dry apricot was about 8,000 metric tons and apricot kernel 600 MT.

Fresh apricot has a limited shelf-life and is easily spoiled. The fruit needs to be dried to increase its shelf-life, reduce losses and improve its access to markets. The traditional method is to spread out apricot on dry flat space in open air and allow it to dry. This method results in contamination of apricot which is not readily sellable in the market.

According to buyers, if hygienic method is adopted and contamination-free apricot is available, it could fetch as much as Rs100 per kg at the farm which at present is sold at Rs40 per kg.

The Project: Small farmers cooperatives in different rural areas have identified a technology based on drying tunnel at a cost of around Rs300,000 per unit. The drying tunnel (20 by 60 feet) comprises iron, glass fibre and parachute material. It has two exhaust fans to re-circulate air inside the tunnel. The tunnel has six foot high iron racks, with space for 250 wooden trays. The trays with sorted, graded and treated apricots are placed inside the tunnel for five days to dry and then kept in the open for eight days.

Benefits of a tunnel: The tunnel reduces wastage of fresh fruits from rain and moisture; drying is better due to optimum temperature; incidence of contamination is reduced; treatment of fruits (sulphuring) adds taste to the produce.

But the groups did not have the required financial resources to set up the project on their own and needed support to convert the idea into reality. To meet the need for funding, the small farmers groups approached a non-profit company Agribusiness Support Fund (ASF) for funding. The ASF was requested for a grant of 25 to 40 per cent of the cost of the project. The rest was to be financed by the groups themselves.

The ASF was created under the auspices of the Rs4.1 billion ADDP (Agribusiness Development & Diversification Project of MINFAL) with the support of ADB. The aim of the ASF is to develop the agribusiness sector in the country supporting economic growth and generating employment. The ASF has been assigned the task of promoting the private sector agribusiness enterprises by providing matching grants for purchase of “Business Development Services” and also providing capacity building support to BDS providers.

The ASF appraisal panel approved maximum grants of Rs120,000 per group and supported around 15 groups each comprising a minimum of 10 farmers in setting up such tunnels.

Long-term Impact: The tunnels were set up which lead to a 250 per cent increase in revenues. A group has already started exporting its product of dried apricots, which he earlier used to throw away.

However, if many tunnels are set up, the prices of the product would considerably drop depriving the group of the benefits as supply of good quality apricots will meet or even exceed demand. The group, to overcome this problem, has plans to setting up enterprises, which will produce value- added apricot-based products like oil, chocolates, jellies, and juices etc.

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