Potato, at a price

Technical assistance can help build the capacity of the potato farmers and their contribution to the GDP

Potato, at a price

The agriculture sector contributes about 19 percent to the GDP of the country. Ad hoc policies and decision-making continue to hamper its potential for growth. Faced by severe shortages, governments have been allowing import of various products as short-term measures but have ignored long-term policies that might result in surplus production and storage.

This time, too, a bumper potato crop has forced the market price down, burdening the growers with losses. In the absence of an efficient export policy, only a few exporters try to export the surplus produce. They have to rely on their own efforts as governments do not facilitate them.

Aamir Hayat Bhandara, the founder of the Agriculture Republic think tank, is a progressive farmer in Pakpattan district. He grows potato, maize and wheat. Bhandara says that uncertainty was the defining feature of this year’s potato crop. “The uncertainty about prices of inputs – fertilizers, pesticides, prices of fuel, electricity and the land rent – impacted the cost of production which rose to Rs20-22 per kilogram. The changing climate, too, had an impacted through frost damage to early plants. At the bulking stage the rain influenced the size and productivity.”

He says high costs and low productivity are likely to make the sowing of next crop harder.

He says around 450,000 tonnes of potato were exported last year. This year the export estimates are a little over 200,000 tonnes. “This year we have had a super bumper crop through increase in acreage. We needed greater efforts to increase exports.”

Amin Bhatti, a vegetable importer and exporter based in Lahore, says that exporters have obtained some orders for the chips-variety potatoes to Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and other Central Asian States. However, he says, they are facing problems in exporting via the Taftan border.

“The only land route to export Pakistani products to Baku is via Taftan. However, the exporters are not getting the e-forms. They are compelled to pay Rs 150,000 to Rs 180,000 per truck to get it across the border. There is high demand for the product in the Central Asian region as their crop will arrive at the end of April. However, the government is not facilitating the exporters,” Bhatti says.

Bhatti suggests that a facilitation desk should be established at the Torkham border to increase Pakistan’s export to the Central Asian region. A huge untapped market for fresh items (fruits, vegetables) exists there but the government is not taking any steps to promote trade via this route. He says all trade via Torkham border is being done illegally. He says the exporters are also facing problems from the plant quarantine department officials. “They demand bribes to clear the export consignments,” he says.

Muneeb Fazal, a potato grower from Depalpur, who supplies potato to one of the leading multinational potato snacks manufacturers in Pakistan, says that following the bumper crop the company cancelled its FOS (farmers’ own seed) contracts in the third week of February without any prior intimation. Further, he says, it changed the potato size requirement. (The required size was reduced to 35mm from 45mm two years ago.)

The company offers three types of contracts: seed development, PCI contact and FOS contract. The company is currently buying potatoes under a PCI contract. Under the contract, it provides seeds to farmers and buys the crop. There are over 400 FOS and PCI contract framers and almost 100 seed development farmers.

Dr Anjum Ali, the Agriculture Extension director general, says: “The farmers are not incurring losses as has been claimed by some farmers’ organisations. Their profits will match those during the last two years.” 

Fazal says that the variety cultivated by farmers for the multinational company is a crisp potato variety. It is not the table variety. Also, it’s normal-sized round shape and not oval shape. He says it cannot be exported to the table potato market or sold in the domestic market.

Dr Anjum Ali, the Agriculture Extension director general, says the area under potato crop cultivation has increased by almost 200,000 acres. He says the harvest is bound to be higher than the last year. According to some estimates it will be about 1.5-2 million tonnes higher than the last year.

He says the cost of production has increased due to multiple factors, mainly due to an increase in the price of international raw materials (fertilisers). However, it will not exceed Rs 14.5-15 per kilogram. “The farmers are not incurring losses as has been claimed by some farmers’ organisations. Their profits will match those during the last two years,” he adds.

Last year (2020-21), the total area under potato crop cultivation was 460,000 acres. The harvest came to 5.682 million tonnes with an average per acre yield of 261 maunds per acre. This year the potato cultivation target was 546,000 acres. The crop was cultivated over 740,000 acres. The production target was 5.966 million metric tonnes with an average per acre yield target of 273 maunds per acre. It is expected that the target of per acre yield will be achieved. The overall production is likely to be 7.4-8 million metric tonnes.

Bhandara stresses the need for sharing valid data at all levels so that the farmers can take informed decisions.

There is a need for a potato development board at the federal level. This board may help assure prices of the imported seed and inputs and create opportunities for the growers, importers and exporters. Technical assistance can build the farmers’ capacity and their contribution to the GDP.

The writer is a senior reporter

Potato, at a price