For successful high density apple plantation, micro irrigation a must

Increased world population mandates a more efficient use of land and water resources for agriculture as International Water Management Institute in their macro-level estimate, reports that one-third of the world population would face absolute water scarcity by the year 2025. Irrigation plays a vital role in crop production and is considered as an important aspect of orchard management.

Developing infrastructure for water resources and their management have been the common policy agenda in many developing economies, particularly in arid and semi-arid tropical countries like India.

Several research studies conducted throughout the world shows that irrigation water plays a critical role in the overall rural development and enhancing farmers’ income through reduction in the input cost of water, fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide, weedicide etc and increase in income through higher yields and better-quality fruits.

Studies conducted out across different regions of India have confirmed that irrigation plays an important role in improving cropping intensity and quality of crops. As of today, the overall coverage of irrigation is only about 40 percent of the total gross cropped area due to predominant use of conventional method of irrigation which is flood or basin irrigation.

conducted out across different regions of India have confirmed that irrigation plays an important role in improving cropping intensity and quality of crops. As of today, the overall coverage of irrigation is only about 40 percent of the total gross cropped area due to predominant use of conventional method of irrigation which is flood or basin irrigation.

Recognizing the importance of sustainable water-use efficiency in agriculture, a number of demand management strategies (like water pricing, water users association, turnover system, etc.) have been introduced since the late-1970s to increase the water-use efficiency, especially in the use of surface irrigation water. One of the demand management mechanisms is the adoption of micro irrigation such as drip and sprinkler methods of irrigation.

Micro-irrigation is one of the most perceptual ways of irrigating fruit crops, mainly due to the great water economy and the possibilities for complete automation of the irrigation process.

Among various input management strategies being popularized in Indian agriculture is micro irrigation, with mainly drip irrigation method dominating for orchard crops. Drip irrigation consists of a permanent system of plastic pipes that use emitters for localizing the application of water near the individual plants using high frequency application and low discharge rates.

The development of drip irrigation system started after World War II and the first commercial drip irrigation system for agricultural crop was developed by S Blass in Israel during the early 1960s. First scientific research reports on this method of micro irrigation system appeared several years after it was commercially available.

Subsequently over the years; modern drip irrigation has arguably become the world’s most valued innovation in agriculture since the invention of the impact sprinkler, which replaced flood irrigation. Irrigation professionals conclude that drip irrigation is found to be the most suitable type of irrigation system for orchards.

Studies on impact of drip irrigation on production and quality has been done in many fruit crops. According to the available data, productivity increase due to use of modern methods of micro-irrigation is estimated to be in the range of 20-90% for different crops.

In spite of having numerous economic and other advantages, the coverage of area under micro-irrigation (drip irrigation) is only about 8 Mha though the ultimate potential is 69 Mha as identified by task force on Micro Irrigation.

Amongst many reasons for the slow progress of adoption of this technology, absence of reliable field studies under drip method of irrigation particularly for high-density orchard crops is one of the important reason. In spite of the fact that micro-irrigation is environmentally sustainable, economically viable and technologically farmers friendly, very few studies have been attempted at the macro-level to study the possibilities and prospects of drip irrigation covering different states in India. Studies have been carried out in only few fruit crops like banana, grapes and papaya where percentage increase in yields have been observed to be 52, 23 and 75 respectively.

With the introduction of new varieties and rootstocks in recent years using high-density plantations (2000-4000 plants/ha), information related to tree growth, yield, and fruit quality in these apple varieties under various regimes of drip irrigation systems is still lacking. 

A very high percentage of orchards in India and particularly in Jammu and Kashmir state is bereft of any irrigation facilities and rainfall is the only source of moisture.

Consequently, water is not available to the plants during their critical stages of growth, leading to poor yield and fruit quality. The productivity of apple in India is low (6-7 MT/ha) compared to horticulturally advanced countries like Belgium (46.22 MT/ha).

The major reasons being the commercial low-density orchards and improper management, especially irrigation practices.

Hence it becomes imperative to shift to high-density plantation using spur varieties and dwarfing rootstock and for successful implementation of high density plantation in our country installation of micro irrigation like drip irrigation is also needed.

In Kashmir, most of the apple orchards are rainfed and the bulk of the precipitation takes place during December to April with uneven distribution which could not cater the demand of water during critical stages of growth and development.

Thus, the plants suffer from serious moisture stress during critical periods. Flowering and fruit set, fruit growth stage and pre-harvest stage are the critical growth stages of apple that are sensitive to water stress.

Water stress during these stages  have adverse effect on the final yield and quality of the produce as water scarcity leads to drought and increasing competition between plants for water.

The irrigation requirements for apples will change depending on the growth stage. Hence it becomes imperative to determine the critical stages of irrigation for apple.As there is no package of practices available in our country regarding the irrigation requirements and fertigation scheduling, studies on water needs of high density apple is needed so that the orchard growers could successfully manage their orchards both in normal water years and in drought period.

As for now, farmers of the state are showing keen interest in new introduced exotic varieties and are preferring to opt for the high density plantation, but they need to be made equally aware of the fact that adoption of drip irrigation system is one of the necessary requirement for successful high plantation.

Therefore, merging new orchard design of high-density plantation system with an efficient micro-irrigation system and new rootstock can result in decreased water consumption and simultaneously producing better quality fruits.

The pressurized micro irrigated high-density plantation system orchards shall produce better quality and higher yielding apple in comparison to the best apple growing areas of the world.

It is partly due to conversion to the micro irrigation from conventional methods of irrigation and fertigation that ultimately leads to optimization of critical inputs like water and fertilizer and simultaneously increase the farmers’ income, which is the national priority under doubling farmer’s income by the Year 2022.

Rafiya Mushtaq

Author is PhD Scholar and a Prime Ministers Research Fellow at SKUAST-Kashmir