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When Haji Abdul Ahad Mir started growing strawberries on a small patch of land of land a decade ago, it was an experiment. In the valley of apples, Haji picked the strawberry option as one that would give him swift benefits. He was till then growing mustard and paddy, which weren't paying as much as he would have liked.
The strawberries from that small patch earned him Rs 70,000 in a month. He expanded the crop to eight hectares and his earnings swelled into lakhs. He has since become the first Kashmiri to win the Taraqi Yafta Kisan award for three consecutive years – for 2009, 2010 and 2011.
A resident of Gasoo village on the outskirts of Srinagar city, Haji is the first from there to experiment with strawberry. "In 2001, strawberry was not an option. If anybody grew it, it was only as a passion," says Haji. "Now the people have understood its commercial value."
Encouraged his profits and awards at state as well as national levels, many farmers in his village have diverted to strawberry. Today Gasoo is called the "strawberry village" of Srinagar. It now has 86 hectares under strawberry cultivation and the annual production is 1,290 tonnes, says Akther Hussein, Kashmir's deputy director for horticulture.
"The economic condition of the people of Gasoo, Dhara and Shalimar (places where strawberry cultivation is the highest amount) has improved," says Akhter. "Strawberry being a crop that can be grown on any piece of land, the income from it can be five times higher than that from other crops."
Strawberry branches too have a commercial use. Altaf Ahmad Mir, Haji's younger brother, is among those who have exploited this option. "The horticulture department often takes these branches from us for plantation," he says.
Altaf jumped into the strawberry business after being impressed with his brother's success. Today, he is one of the largest growers in their village. Like his brother, Mir too was a vegetable grower. "I would earn Rs 5,000 a month until strawberry changed our business. I now earn Rs 4 lakh a month," says Mir.