By Vishal Gulati
Manali, Nov 12 (IANS) Cold desert of Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul Valley that were once known for producing a bitter taste hops are going to experiment with exotic variety of barley that will be used for making malt whisky, say agriculture experts.
For this, the state government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Polish spirits producer Neilson Europe to initially involve nearly 200 farmers of Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba districts to go for contract farming of a high-yield barley variety imported from Scotland.
Once known for producing a bitter taste hops, the contract farming of barley in the remote Lahaul Valley, which has a cultivation season for less than five months from May owing to heavy snowfall and extreme cold climatic conditions, will usher economic prosperity, Agriculture Minister and local legislator Ram Lal Markanda told IANS.
Last week the state signed a pact with the Polish spirits producer that proposed to invest Rs 110 crore to produce the organic Himalayan single malt whisky.
According to the producer of the award winning spirit ZOUK Vodka, world’s only single estate rye vodka, the geographic and climatic conditions of Himachal Pradesh is on a par with the Scotland’s and many other European regions which will lead to deriving a unique and special terroir.
Surveys by the agriculture department show that the area under cash crop potato cultivation in the Lahaul Valley has already declined in 10 years from 2,000 hectares to about 700 hectares.
Potato cultivation started in 1854 when missionary A. W. Hide from Germany established a farm near Keylong in the Lahaul Valley.
Likewise, there has been a near decline in the cultivation of hops, a key ingredient in brewing beer, as a major cash crop in the valley owing to dumping of cheaper varieties from China, the US and Germany.
Currently, the area under vegetable cultivation in the valley is around 2,200 hectares.
Ramesh Chand, an exotic vegetable grower in Sissu village in Lahaul district, said the contract farming of barley could bring economic prosperity.
“Last year, following news of detection of the Nematode virus in the seed potato samples, growers in Lahaul suffered a massive loss. Many a time untimely heavy snowfall is damaging our cash crops of peas and apples,” he said.
Another farmer Deepak Bodh said the contract farming would benefit both the producers as well as the Agro-processing firm.
He said in the past decade, locals have almost given up the cultivation of hops owing to poor demand.
“Barley is a cash crop here, but largely for local consumption and livestock. If there is a contract farming for high-yield barley, it is a good opportunity for the growers to get remunerative price,” he added.
Currently, farmers are cultivating cauliflower, cabbage and peas.
According to the Agriculture Department, the yield of cauliflower in the Lahaul Valley is as high as 400 quintal per hectare compared to 200 to 250 quintal elsewhere in the state.
Neilson Europe President Gaurav Rajput told IANS that initially 200 farmers would be involved in the contract farming. “If it is successful, 500-700 farmers would be involved.”
He said the company would pay Rs 50,000 to each barley grower for its produce on one acre. The amount is 25 per cent higher than the prevailing market rate.
The company would also set up a distillery-cum-bottling plant in the state.
The Lahaul Valley, comprising over two dozen small, scattered villages, remains cut off from the rest of the world for over four months from December onwards owing to heavy snow accumulation in the Rohtang Pass (13,050 feet) — the only road link with Manali in the Kullu district.
It re-opens once snow starts thawing after mid-April.
(Vishal Gulati can be reached at [email protected])