The quest to understand the source of the food we eat took me to Rajgarh, Himachal Pradesh. This town in Sirmaur Valley is famous as the Peach Bowl of India. 80% of all peaches produced in India are grown in Rajgarh. Here I found work as a peach picker for a day and got to learn many things about this delicious summer fruit.
About The Fruit
Peaches are an ancient fruit, believed to have originated over four thousand years ago in China(1). They go so long back in China, that they have a special place in Chinese folklore. Travellers would carry sticks made of peach wood that could ward off evil spirits. They were also a symbol of youth and immortality. India’s tryst with peaches began during the Harappan civilization, and later were also recorded as a favourite fruit of the Mughals, and their name for it hints at the fruit’s oriental origins – ‘Chinani’. In Himachal Pradesh, they are called ‘Aadu’. The subtropical climate and soil conditions here are viable for this fruit tree to grow easily.
The Day I Went Picking
While walking in the village of Rajgarh, I met a middle-aged man called Mr. Rajendar. He lives with his family a little distance away from the motorable road. They lead a self-reliant life, by growing all the food they consume. Although, he doesn’t grow peaches himself, when April comes around, he takes a keen interest in the peach production of the area. April to June is the peak season for the peach harvest. Peaches turn him into an enterprising trader. He buys the fruit of around 500 trees in his vicinity, from villagers that are growing peaches, pears and apples. Then, he arranges for the fruit to be picked, sorted and transported. Rajendar ji gets the produce from orchards in mountain villages to the city where it is consumed. I meet him in mid-July and I know the peach season is getting over, but I’m still hoping I can see some action on the farm.
‘Do you think I can join your people in the fruit picking today?’, I ask him.
‘Oh, sure. Infact, you made it just in time. Today is the last day of picking peaches. All my pickers leave for Shimla tomorrow for the start of apple season over there.’ Looks like we are in luck.
Ripe For The Picking
We travel to his godown where people are sorting peaches. You must have heard the phrase – ripe for the picking; but I learned that peaches that are truly ripe are not good for business. Their freshness lasts upto a day, which is why they can only be sent to nearby markets. The unripe ones are prized more as they still have two to four days to reach full ripeness and will probably be consumed in Chandigarh, Delhi or even Mumbai when ready. Here I also meet Gita and Ram, a young couple from Nepal who are daily wage laborers working for Rajendra Ji. They will instruct me in the art of peach picking. I am told to pick up a ‘kilta’ or the fruit-picker’s basket on my back before we set out to the field. What followed was a treacherous climb through the farms of maize and millet, but the two of them made it appear as breezy as a walk in the park. One, two, three and they’re already on the other side! It isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
The technique of picking was easy enough, but the challenge was the location of the trees. The peach is not a tame tree growing prettily in a row. It likes growing on steep slopes and hanging off cliffs. Ram volunteered to go after the really dangerous ones, while Gita and I stayed closer to the ground. Just as I was falling into the rhythm of the work, my hands began itching. They told me it is a classic problem for the pickers. The peach fuzz on the surface of the fruit sticks to your skin and makes you feel mildly itchy constantly.
‘Only taking a bath will make it completely go away,’ They inform me.
We spent around two hours going from tree to tree, like bees collecting nectar. We managed to fill up two of our baskets completely. You could say it was around ten kgs of peaches. The best part about my day was that a picker as experienced as Gita would choose the ripest, most delicious peaches for us and we would relish them in a snack break.
The Peach Bowl Flourishes
By the early efforts of former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Dr. Y S Parmar, who planted the peach orchards, today this town is called the Peach Bowl of India. It has ushered in economic prosperity for the people, but there are still many ways in which the peach ecosystem can be improved. To begin with, the wages of workers like Ram and Gita can be higher. For a full day of work, where they can easily pick upto 30 kgs of fruit, they are paid Rs. 500 each, whereas the fruit they’re picking sells for as high as 300 Rs/kg. Since peaches are a delicate fruit, the lack of refrigerated vans also hurts the trade. The service of refrigerated vans at a subsidised price and setting up of a food processing [canning, preserving, juicing] plant are some of the things farmers and traders are demanding from the government.
These were some things I learned on the day I spent as a peach picker. My hope is to keep bringing you interesting tales from places where our food comes from.