Markets have started receiving some varieties of dates (Phoenix dactylifera), attracting consumers in both rural and urban areas, but producers and traders seem unhappy as they have lost their foreign buyers who paid better rates.
Growers said they used to sell large quantities of dates to foreign buyers, especially in neighbouring countries. The highest quantity was sold to India and the rest to other neighbours and far off countries too. However, exports of dates have declined, hitting the income of date traders.
Forecast of monsoon rain in mid-July is another challenge for farmers and traders. The date fruit is fragile and cannot survive in light showers during its sweetening stage, said reports gathered from farmers in Khairpur district, the main hub of this fruit.
Farmers said that dates were now in the early stages of ripening and they were able to pick at least 2-3 kilograms a day of the fruit, which they sold in the market. Generally, the main harvest begins after July 21, when they picked 10-15 kilogram of ripened fruit from each tree. The fruit gets collected after the growers witness it change to a brownish colour, which means that the fruit was now gaining sweetness.
Once the product ripens and gains sweetness on trees, the farmers start processing like cooking, drying and packing for main markets. The main date markets, known as ‘Khajoor Bazaar’ are in Khairpur and Sukkur.
Javed Odhano, a local activist from Khairpur district, working with local communities said that despite development of advance technology for the preservation and processing of fruits, date producers still followed conventional practices, which caused both pre and post harvest losses.
Traditionally, growers give date gardens to contractors for two-three years on the same pattern as is done for other fruits, such as mangoes, guava, jujube, and lemon, etc. The contractors are responsible of garden management, and picking, processing, and packing the produce for the markets.
Risk factors include market ups and downs; fungal infections, monsoon rains and water scarcity, which always cause huge losses to contractors and the workforce associated with this fruit for different tasks.
Each tree holds 15-20 bunches, producing three-four maund. Normally, the market value touches Rs4,000-8,000 per maund, depending on the situation. Presently, retailers in urban neighbourhoods sell dates at Rs150, Rs200 and Rs250/kg, depending on the areas.
There is need for expertise in picking, grading, processing and packing for the market. For instance, pickers have to select ripened fruits from 15-20 bunches from each tree, which produces one or two kilograms daily at an early stage.
Farmers have an old mechanism to cultivate 80-100 trees per acre. Now, in some areas farmers use intercropping like mango, banana and cotton with date palm trees. But due to long roots of date trees, other orchards cannot gain benefit from the soil and water.
Local activists, keeping a close eye over the changing scenario, said farmers seem afraid of visible threats of diseases, low productivity, rain damages and markets’ ups and downs and preferably give their gardens to contractors at about Rs1,000—Rs2,000/tree (mostly each acre has around 80-100 trees), instead of entire gardens spread over many acres.
Sindh Agriculture Extension Department Deputy Director Rasool Bux Khaskheli, hailing from Khairpur district, said this year the fruit was safe from diseases and producers were optimistic to earn enough income despite fear of monsoon rains, which could cause problems.
He said traders have to rent clothing bags for protecting bunches from rains and weather. “But it is too costly, as each tree needs 15-20 such protection bags for bunches and entire gardens require hundreds of bags just to protect the product and avoid losses,” he explained.
Khaskheli said that practically contractors did not use bags for protecting dates because of the increasing cost.
Traditionally, Khairpur and parts of Sukkur are considered as producing the best quality of dates because of pleasant weather, but recently farmers have planted date trees in Naushehro Feroz and Nawabshah on experimental basis. Product from these areas is yet to attract the market.
Date farmers in Khairpur district have experienced setbacks after losing their foreign markets. Some have cleaned the old trees, and started using the land for banana orchards or for cultivating crops such as wheat and cotton.
Compared with other cash crops, they plead that date palm garden earns Rs100,000/acre or a little more, while other crops help them earn more benefits within a five-six months period.
No new garden has been developed in the area to keep the traditional date plantations alive. If the growers continue to lose their market, this major fruit tree might get wiped out from the areas sooner or later as farmers search for alternatives means of earning.
A large number of women artisans use date leaves for weaving various sizes of basketry products for the markets. Besides this, other parts of this tree are also used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments, especially sore throats, colds, fevers, abdominal and respiratory problems.
Traditional families in rural areas keep dry dates at home to use as remedies of common diseases among children and elders. Date palm roots are used for curing toothaches. Some people extract gum from the trunk of this tree to treat diarrhoea and urinary ailments.
Sweet and sour date pickle is getting popularity in the areas, where women have adapted new varieties of food. Despite its taste and quality, the shelf life of dates is not high and the product changes its colour after a few months.
It is pertinent to note that the Sindh government had initiated a mega project known as Khairpur Special Economic Zone, comprising 140 acre land a few years back to benefit local fruits mainly date products’ for processing and packing. But, local activists said the structure was still incomplete and might take more time to start processing facilities to save this fruit.
The writer is a staff member