Wednesday January 19, 2022

Tomato rout leaves Sindh farmers stewing in own juices

January 15, 2022

HYDERABAD: Tomato, an indispensable staple for South Asian curries, whose price in Pakistan once spiked to over Rs400/kg, has hit rock bottom, primarily owing to casual imports and abundant crop, forcing growers to rid themselves of this perishable at throwaway rates.

In the newly launched fruit/vegetable market in Hyderabad city, you will see vendors calling for customers at the top of their lungs to sell 10-12kg tomato bags at just Rs60-100/bag.

These vendors have also fielded their foot-salespersons of all ages, who, carrying small tomato bags of 2.5—3kg, engage customers to buy this essential food product at Rs25-30/bag (Rs10/kg).

These vendors buy a variety of vegetables and fruits during the auction in the morning and then sell them in the market all day long at their selling spots. They hire minors and elderly people to sell small bags of specific items and earn Rs500-1000 each daily by moving about the fruit/vegetable market all the day.

Low-income people from different parts of the city come there whenever they feel like it and at any time or on the weekends to purchase vegetables, which they keep for a week.

Shafeeq Ahmed, a buyer said he had been frequenting the new market since its inauguration, especially on weekends to buy food items, as street vendors sell the same at higher rates.

He said tomato was an essential food item, which almost all people consume in almost every curry or as salad, but its shelf life was short. On the other hand, Ahmed said, only potato, onion, and dried garlic could be kept for a long time.

As tomato, green chilli, coriander, and other leafy vegetables lose freshness after two-three days at homes and needed to be bought more frequently and in moderate quantities. “That’s why I came here to by buy one kilogramme tomatoes, which the vendors are reluctant to sell as they have 2.5—3kg packs to sell at Rs25-30 (wholesale).

Having witnessed food items price fluctuations, mainly tomato, green chilli, coriander, onion, spinach etc, Ahmed said among all vegetables the price of tomato seemed to be uncontrollable. “Tomato price sometimes go up, while the others are falling, but consumers take it at any cost,” Ahmed said.

This winter tomato pouring into the market comes from Thatta, Sujawal, and Badin districts of Sindh province, where farmers claim to have spent Rs50,000—60,000 per acre for cultivation. They pay Rs12,000—13,000 for only one-acre seed, besides expenses of tractors and costly fertiliser.

But after the rates of favorite commodity went into free fall, they are not left with any option other than feeding it to animals.

Ismail Hingorjo, a producer and trader of Jati, Sujawal district, said several small-scale farmer families cultivate vegetables, mainly tomato, green chilli, and onion for the market, hoping to earn better profits.

The farmers are quite aware and cultivate tomato in three phases, keeping in mind availability of water and forecast for weather phenomenon to avoid loss, according to Hingorjo.

“First tomato crop, cultivated in August 2021, luckily earned some farmers some reasonable rates. But sudden heavy rains in September ruined the crop, leaving farmers helpless,” he said.

The second crop, he said, cultivated in October, came under stress of falling prices.

Dealing with markets for the last 40 years as a vegetable producer and trader, he seems optimistic about the third crop cultivated in late November through low streams in watercourses and expected to reach market in February and March 2022, given the weather remains favourable.

“But again, it is up to marketers as to how they create demand for local products and benefit the farmers,” Hingorjo added.

He said they produced fresh food products to meet the need of local consumers but in return they were being dealt differently.

According to him, it is an artificial phenomenon to deprive local producers of their right (getting proper rates of their product).

The frustrated farmer alleged the government authorities were in cahoots with the marketers, who received imported tomato from neighbouring countries to the disappointing local producers.

Sharing background, Hingorjo said they being tail-enders received water for six months, starting from May to October for agriculture.

Reports gathered from the areas show that despite falling prices, farmers are picking tomato to sell it at Rs50-60/14kg bag.

Researchers believe tomato crop is economically viable for small-scale farmers, who have been cultivating it fondly for generations, but they do not have access to processing technology and value addition.

For example, according to them, Sindh produces more than 10,000 tons of tomato each year by cultivating it over around 150,000 acres.

Looking to the prevailing situation when the price is quite low and the larger amount is going to be wasted, processing units with packing and value-addition facilities help farmers earn profit through marketing.

This crop is cultivated twice a year, summer and winter in Sindh. Farmers in Thatta, Sujawal and Badin produce it in the winter. Punjab and Balochistan do not produce this crop in this season because of extreme cold.

Tomato is a main food crop but for the last few years Sindh farmers are facing issues like unstable prices, loss by water scarcity, and extreme weather. Sometimes tomato farmers earn Rs200,000-300,000 per acre, while at others falling prices or rains ruin the crop in the fields.

In local markets its price drastically fluctuates between Rs200-300kg and Rs10-20/kg (by street vendors).