Muhammad Rahim Lakho, a small scale farmer in Hala, Matiari district sent two trucks, carrying 270 onion bags to Lahore market where he received only Rs34,000 for the consignment.
Lakho cultivated onions on five acres. Input costs exceeded Rs100,000/acre, including seeds, nursery preparation, weed management, tractor use, fertiliser, water and other expenses. He had hopes of receiving Rs800/bag, but the meagre Rs34,000 dampened his hopes of even paring his transportation and highway expenses.
Major cities of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are considered potential markets for Sindh onion. Large amounts of onion produced in Sindh move to upcountry markets annually and mostly producers and traders earn huge profit, especially when demand is high.
“It is not just me, several farmers witnessed a similar situation,” Lakho said. “After this loss, I decided not to cultivate onion next year on a single acre of land. Recovering from this years loss will take a long time,” he lamented.
Speaking of the plight of sharecroppers, Lakho said they would become indebted as a consequence of this loss and would have to work hard for a long time to pay off their share of expenses.
Usually, Sindh farmers cultivate onion in two phases. The first ones transplant the seedlings in June and July. They harvest the crop in October and November and bring it to the markets.
Others cultivate late varieties, which are brought to the market in February.
Timely harvest depends on availability of water and nursery preparation for early cultivation.
Farooq Memon, another farmer in Tando Allahyar district said that besides the preparation of the nursery, onion requires 6-8 bags fertiliser per acre, which the farmers have to bear along with the cost of tractor and water.
“On one hand soil fertility is declining and farmers receive low yield of crops, while on the other hand, they are being deprived of reasonable rates for their produce,” he added.
Onion is on the list of crops which do not receive a support price set by the government. He said this year farmers could not receive reasonable rates and many of them were contemplating if they should continue with the crop or shift hands to alternatives.
Recalling the past, Memon said they used to receive traders from urban markets looking to buy onion directly from the fields. “Cost of labour, grading, packing, loading and transportation to major markets in Karachi and Hyderabad or even larger cities of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the traders’ headache,” he shared.
But now with the decreasing demand, producers themselves have to bear the cost of labour for the process and transportation of onions to the market. In this situation, prices offered in the market were insufficient to recover the cost.
Hundreds of workers, both men and women, are associated with various tasks to cultivate onions; from preparing nurseries, to transplanting seedlings, managing weeds, cutting, packing bags, and loading.
Sindh produces various varieties of onion, including the famous Hazari or Nasarpuri onion, an early variety. It is common and usually cultivated on wide areas in June and July. The produce starts appearing in the markets in October and November.
Phalkara is a late variety, which is transplanted in October and November and comes to the market in January and February. Presently, this late variety is available for Rs30-50/kg at retailer shops/vendors.
Some farmers are experimenting with multi-cropping. They sow onion, sugarcane and wheat on the same piece of land. It is believed by the farmers that this way they use less water and fertiliser, and get three crops, one after the other from the same piece of land.
Farmers in Nasarpur, the hub of the famous Nasarpuri/Hazari variety admitted they were uncertain of cultivating onion next year. Some farmers believe they have been getting low rates for onion for the last three-four years despite the fact that they pay a huge input cost on it.
In this uncertain situation, a number of farmers were reluctant about taking the risk of transporting their produce to the market and vacating the land for the next immediate crop.
Farmers said this year (2021-2022) onion started coming to the market in October and November, which they were compelled to sell at a meagre amount of Rs800-1,200/bag (100-110kg).
Mostly leading farmers do not cultivate onions on a large scale. Only smallscale farmers spare some pieces of family lands for cultivating onion and other vegetables. Due to ups and downs in the markets, they always face trouble.
Farmers in the catchment area of River Indus had introduced onion after the flood in 2010 and continued because of high profit of Rs1.2-1.3 million/acre. But after the spread of Covid-19, they started witnessing a disappointing situation.
This year, the river could not bring water the whole year, depriving farmers of their right to water to cultivate traditional crops on their pieces of land. Riverine farmers cultivate a variety of pulses, mostly chickpeas, masoor (red lentils), sorghum, coriander and melons, depending on water availability.
Riverine land is quite fertile compared to canal areas and has higher yield. Onion farmers in catchment area claim to get 110-120 bags/acre. Furthermore, riverine farmers produce organic food products that require lesser chemical input.
The recent fertiliser crisis has added to the miseries of farmers, who accuse the Sindh government of discouraging agriculture instead of offering incentives to save the economy.
The writer is a staff member