A private vehicle is seen passing through apple orchad in Marpha village of Mustang district on April 7, 2017. (Xinhua/Zhou Shengping)
by Shristi Kafle, Zhou Shengping
MUSTANG, Nepal, April 19 (Xinhua) -- Being one of the oldest apple producers in the remote Mustang district, 75-year-old Nar Bahadur Hirachan feels proud that his village, Marhpa, produces the juiciest apples in Nepal.
"We used to sell apples by carrying them on bamboo baskets on our backs and walking to nearby cities. Later, the government helped us to market our products using helicopters since there were no roads. And now the demand is so high that buyers come here to pick apples from the trees themselves," Hirachan told Xinhua in a recent interview.
Hirachan once worked as a minister when Nepal was a kingdom about three decades ago. Now this energetic old man owns 250 ropanies (1 ropani equals about 509 square meters) of land, on which he makes a profit of more than Rs. 3 million (about 30,000 U.S. dollars) annually.
The local farmer added, "We also sell dry apples, apple juice, brandy and other products which are made without the use of chemicals. Everything here is organic."
Mustang, which borders China, is located nearly 200 km away from Nepal's capital Kathmandu and is considered to be the capital of apples. The majority of houses in Mustang have apple orchards which produce different varieties like delicious red, rich red, royal, golden and fuji apples.
Mustang is the second-largest apple production hub in the Himalayan country after the remote western district of Jumla. Apples from Mustang are considered the best for their texture, juiciness and crunchiness. However, the same organic apples are rarely found and tasted by locals in Kathmandu.
According to government statistics, Mustang produced 4,500 metric tons of apples in the last fiscal year, generating a revenue of over Rs. 310 million.
However, the capital city received only a few tons of apples from Mustang in autumn last year equaling about 400,000 kg.
Keshav Khadka, an executive member of Nepal Fruits Wholesalers Association, told Xinhua, "Apples from Mustang have been in high demand in recent years. But we have been failing to address the demand. Mustang apples are available for only two months, whereas we need apples throughout the year."
Khadka, who has been in the fruit business for the last 15 years, says Mustang's entire production capacity cannot meet the demand of the capital for even a couple of days. On normal days, around 700,000 kg of apples are consumed in the valley, with the amount rising exponentially during festive seasons.
Currently, 90 percent of the apple in the deficit in the country is being met by imports, with China being the biggest import destination and accounting for 70 percent. The other apple imports come from India, United States and Australia.
Mustang farmers sell their apples for Rs. 50 to Rs. 80 per kg in the local market while the rate rises to to Rs. 150 in the capital.
Local females gather before beginning their regular workin apple orchards of government-owned Temperate Horticulture Development Center located in Marpha of Mustang district on April 7, 2017. (Xinhua/Zhou Shengping)
Mustang's lucrative apple trade is a priority for locals, especially those in the hotel business.
However, due to low production and problems in grading and packaging systems, Mustang apples are consumed only within the nearby cities like Beni, Baglung and Pokhara.
For decades, Temperate Horticulture Development Center, located in the Marpha village has been promoting and supporting the locals in the commercial apple business by providing suitable saplings and technical assistance. But production is still insufficient.
Bal Krishna Adhikari, senior officer at Temperate Horticulture Development Center, told Xinhua, "Our farm's challenge is to produce the apple seedling according to the demand of farmers. The demand of the farmers is very high but we produce limited quantities due to the scarcity of farm land, farm resources and human resources."
Out of a total 1,100 hectares of area for apple cultivation, commercial production is carried out only in 350 hectares and hence production is automatically low.
Beside fresh apples, the region produces dried apple candies, apple brandy, cider wine and juice which support the tourist trade in Mustang district. Dried apple crumble is sold only in the big supermarkets and departmental stores in the capital as they are mostly consumed within the local area by domestic and foreign tourists.
Demand for apple brandy is high in big cities like Kathmandu, but supply is comparatively low.
A retail liquor store in Kathmandu told Xinhua, "Many customers visit us asking for Mustang's apple brandy known locally as Marpha. Since we only have a limited supply, we often sell them Jumla's apple brand, claiming it to be Mustang."
Currently, there are only three apple brandy manufacturers in Mustang, all of which use traditional brandy-making equipment like firewood and processes from last year.
Farmers in the Himalayan belt lack modern farming practices and technology like cold stores and skilled human resources, as a result the juicy delicious apples are failing to reach the broader market.
Many local traders also say the younger generations are gradually losing interest in the apple business as they are more focused on immediate revenue-generating businesses like tourism, animal farm management and trade.