Himalayan Orchard is an eco-friendly farm stay project in the Shimla hills of Himachal Pradesh run by Michael and Devanshe. The farm is located in an area peculiarly rich in flora and fauna. The farm stretches from the orchard belt upto the river below, with protected deodar forests stretching above it to rocky mountain peaks beyond.
One can get to see more or less virgin protected open forests stretching to the glaciers in the far horizon. In 2012 the apple orchards and many of the buildings had become neglected, dilapidated and fallen into serious disrepair. Over the last five years the buildings have been sensitively restored and renovated. Now the farm-stay is offering five comfortable bedrooms for 10 to 12 guests.
The area has very little to offer by way of local tourist facilities and is very much ‘off the beaten track’. There is no television facilities and internet access is limited. However, there is a projector and a select DVD library.
The orchard grows more than 800 apples, pears, apricots, cherries, peaches and walnut trees. As they grow on numerous small terraces or fields on fairly steep slopes, mechanisation is minimal; most of the work is done by hand in the traditional way. Sprays, when they are used, are kept to a bare minimum and applied to trees only. Pests are reduced by hand-clearing the vegetation around the trees, which is fed to the cows, who provide the fertiliser.
The land in and around, and between the fruit trees is used for organic traditional vegetable production—garlic (a cash crop), potatoes, peas, onions, beans, marrows, zucchini, maize, cucumbers, tomatoes, chilli peppers, capsicum, beetroot, and aubergine, as well as various herbs, seeds and salads such as coriander, amaranth, basil, oregano, rosemary, lavender, rocket and bergamot. Intercropping is commonly used.
There is a small dairy herd of four cows. From their milk, various cheeses (hard, soft, cottage cheese and seasoned), yoghurt/curd, butter, and buttermilk are also prepared. Some of the milk is sold to neighbours.
As a consequence of the organic vegetable production, the farm is rich in wild flowers, herbs, birds, butterflies, bees and insects.
The non-saleble apples and other fruits are used to make juice, using handmade equipment. Guests are served juices for breakfast and are welcome to get involved in the fruit pressing process in the season (August– September).
The lot of home-grown products is used in cooking and offered to guests. The local Himachali cuisine, such as stuffed sidku, pancakes with poppy-seed chutney, ghee (a form of clarified butter) and honey, and so on are served to guests.
Freshly collected mushrooms with homemade pasta are also very popular. Jams, pickles and preserves are also produced.
Guests are welcome to take part in any aspect of farming and food production: milking and feeding the cows, mushroom collecting, collecting free-range eggs, jam, bread and cheese-making, etc.
The farm workers are paid daily wages when working in the orchard, buildings and other infrastructure. Their family accommodation is provided on- site, and the land is used by them to provide for a large proportion of their dietary needs, additionally, generating income in terms of off-farm sales of milk, garlic, etc. Major building work involves the employment of other family members and local workers.
Forest Watch :-
A group by the name, Himachal Forest Watch is formed by Himalayan Orchard for various activities:
1. ‘Forest Clean Up’ events
These are organised monthly, publicised on Facebook and elsewhere, and increasingly involve members of the local community. Large amounts of trash are collected. Guests often join in these events. More cooperation with local schools and the Forest Department is planned.
2. Reporting illegal tree-felling
Evidence of extensive illegal tree-felling was recorded in March 2017 and widely publicised to the media, Forest Department officials, the judiciary, and on Facebook, where it reached over 9,000 people and was shared 56 times. The police and Forest Department took action and the culprits were arrested, charged and sentenced to prison terms of 7 to 10 years. Further evidence of smaller scale tree-felling has since been reported to the authorities.
3. Tackling and reporting forest fires and illegal encroachment.
Along with the farm workers, two forest fires have been successfully extinguished locally and others reported to the authorities. The recorded evidence of a large fire that appeared to have been started deliberately to clear land for illegal encroachment by neighbouring orchardists, was reported to the Forest Department, who took appropriate action.
4. Paths and mapping.
The forest is crisscrossed by numerous paths and tracks, many of which are largely disused and overgrown. Himalayan Orchard are opening up a number of these and creating a network of discretely signed paths and associated maps so that the guests can explore the forest. A local guidebook is in the making to include these maps and local, natural and social history. This process involves the recording of local/traditional knowledge including medicinal herbs and natural health practices.
Most of the buildings are largely traditional in design. The water (source of water is a mix of spring water and rainwater harvesting) is solar-heated. The aim is to ensure that visitors contribute positively to the local economy and environment, rather than create any negative impact. Taking care of the visitors will create more direct employment on the farm, as well as off-farm in terms of guides, both local and long distance for more intrepid trekkers.