“Less rains have led to a decline in saffron productivity,” said the scientist, who has been tasked with rejuvenating saffron growing and has toured foreign countries looking at the best practices.
After years of studying how to help the farmers, the local government has finally formulated a policy to provide tube wells to the farmers — but with a major drawback.
“The farmers will have to create the facility themselves and then claim the money back,” said Nehvi, who acknowledged the response had been underwhelming so far.
Growers say that because of the drought-like conditions of the last few years, they lack the money needed to invest in the wells, which cost between 50,000 and 60,000 rupees (US$1,070-US$1,300).
Other ways of irrigating the highland fields, including taking water from rivers and streams, have not materialized owing to a lack of financial support from the government, Nehvi said.
INNOVATE OR FAIL
One of the consequences is that Indian Kashmir has been eclipsed by growers in Iran, who use irrigated land. Saffron is also grown in the Mediterranean region.
Iranian saffron undercuts Kashmiri produce even in India where it sells for 250,000 rupees (US$5,102 dollars) a kilogram, compared with 300,000 rupees for the Kashmiri version.
In a bid to catch up, Nehvi and his fellow scientists are trying to promote irrigation and other new technologies to replace old methods, such as open-air drying of the stamens.
“We are encouraging farmers to go for drying under controlled conditions. It retains the flavor and color of the spice,” Nehvi said, adding that the government would help farmers to acquire solar or electric dryers.
Nehvi and his fellow scientists are also helping villagers to increase their production by swapping animal-drawn plows for power tillers at subsidized rates, which help to prepare the seedbeds for higher density sowing.
“We will have to sow 50 plants per square meter, instead of 15 to 20 as we are seeing currently,” Nehvi said.
“If we do this our output will increase three times,” he said.
Despite these efforts to introduce modernity in this conservative Muslim region, there are many other problems, both manmade and natural.
Over the past two years the crop has been hit by a disease called saffron corm-rot, caused by a pathogen that spread when apples and saffron were grown in the same fields, Nehvi said.
Economic development in the region, where 400,000 educated youths are unemployed, is also a threat to farmers.
“The dust and pollutants emanating from the factories is damaging the crop and nothing is being done,” agriculture scientist Nazir Ahmed said, referring to south Kashmir’s Wuyan, Khrew and Khonmoh areas where huge factories have been set up.