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December 1, 2019

Suburban farmers earn extra on off-season vegetables


December 1, 2019

HYDERABAD: It was a chilled November morning, as farmer Ubaidullah Solangi was guiding labourers at his farmhouse in suburban Hyderabad to sort out bitter gourd, ridge gourd, and cucumber for packing and loading to send to the market.

To pick the produce, he mostly hires women, who work in tunnel farms. Tunnel farms are covered with large plastic sheets supported by wooden posts and iron pipes. Ubaidullah Solangi has introduced this method of farming on three separate farms of one acre each.

Every day, women come early in the morning for picking at the tunnel farms, while men do the grading and packing, before loading the vehicles bound for the city markets. They were packing nine kilograms bitter gourds and 10 kilograms cucumber in plastic bags from heaps. Once done, the produce is transported to the market.

Talking to The News about tunnel-vertical farming, Solangi said they have cultivated off-season varieties of bitter gourd on an area covered by 5,000 feet of plastic sheets. “We have installed drip irrigation system to water each plant drip by drip.”

About the cost, he said that initially at least Rs900,000 were needed for cultivating one acre, including seed, chemical input, machinery, plastic sheet, and labour. Mostly hybrid seeds are used to grow off-season vegetables, and those seeds are expensive.

However, he said that since it gives them higher yield, they prefer the hybrid seeds over traditional ones for better earning.

Ubaidullah was inspired by the farms in the surrounding neighbourhood, where growers earn enough income through tunnel-vertical farming. “An acre of vertical farm can produce more than what one grows on a five acre horizontal farms,” he shared.

This technology was costly with drip irrigation, and the plastic sheet for shed to maintain temperature. “But, farmers can produce summer crops in winter through this initiative. Presently, these off-season vegetables are very costly in market,” he said.

Traditionally, these vegetable crops grow in summer, but now due to the fast changing technologies, and the costly new hybrid seed varieties that are replacing local seeds, it has become possible for these farmers to grow offseason vegetables. It also helps farmers earn more, while meeting the demand of the growing population.

Tunnel farming has inspired many farmers, who were traditionally from the small-dairy, poultry, and fodder producing entrepreneur families in the suburbs of Hyderabad. They produce off-season vegetable varieties under tunnel farms, which have high demand in the local market.

Recalling the past, some growers shared their success stories about producing variety of vegetables in the areas, which have now become part of urban development initiatives.

Solangi has also developed compost to maintain soil fertility, as he believes that excessive use of chemical input causes problem, which not only damage soil fertility but impact the overall environment and human health.

However, a debate was also raised on the nutritional quality of hybrid seeds and off-season vegetable varieties. A general understanding among the people is that off-season varieties are pesticide-tainted and take a bigger toll on human health.

Ubaidullah himself was conscious about the health problems, and admitted that he himself does not consume the off-season vegetable varieties he grows in his tunnel farms. However, he considers the demand for such produce positive for his business.

Some farmers believe that tunnel farming products have high market value and export chances because of the shining colour and health of the produce, which attracts buyers. Many others still demand for organic food for health reasons.

Sindh Agriculture Extension’s Mustafa Nangraj understands these varieties have poor nutritional value, but said “we need to overcome the growing demand to feed more people, who do not have access to enough food.”

He quoted the green revolution in 1960, which brought machinery, chemical input and dwarf varieties to Pakistan. “Now there are environmental problems due to use of chemical input and replacement of old varieties with dwarf ones, but we have to produce more food for the people. We cannot depend on traditional seed crops, which do not have more yields,” he added.

He considers hybrid food varieties essential to fight against food insecurity.

Mustafa Nangraj claims to have introduced five-colour food varieties, mainly vegetables and fruits, which have gained popularity among village farmers, who are eager to produce the same in their courtyards.

Prof Muhammad Ismail Kumbhar, a known researcher and teacher at the Sindh Agriculture University Tandojam, having visited agriculture farms in many developed and developing countries, said, “China is one of the producers of hybrid seeds varieties, where experts are available to run technologies and can remove any problems farmers may face. But compared to that in Sindh, farmers need awareness about the use of technology.”

He believes that farmers get dirty varieties of pesticides. “They cannot guess the purity and use it on crops. As a result they themselves become vulnerable due to the health problems they face,” he shared.

Altaf Mahesar, leading farmers’ network under Basic Development Foundation (BDF) promotes local seed varieties. He said, “Traditional seed varieties have more potential to give high yield. But since there is no effort to prioritise and promote indigenous products, including offering support price, these varieties are discarded in the name of giving low yield.”

Sharing his achievements, Mahesar said, “We have conserved indigenous seeds of wheat, rice and some old vegetables, which we offer to growers. These wheat varieties can give yield more than 40 maunds per acre, equal to some high yielding varieties that are emerging in the province. But because these old varieties have been discarded ruthlessly, we are paying a price by losing our health and polluting the ecosystem.”

He said high cost, its impacts on human health and environment should be measured while favouring alien varieties. Sometimes these hybrid varieties do not grow and the farmers have to bear the cost of government negligence when it comes to new research to see the potential of indigenous food varieties.