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Flattened by erratic rain, Pakistani farmers ditch crop farming

ISLAMABAD: In late April, after 28 hours of heavy rain, Noor Hussain and his two brothers surveyed his three-hectare wheat plot to see what they could save.

An earlier hailstorm had already devastated much of the crop. Now, standing on the fringes of the sodden farm, Hussain despaired.

“Look at spikes of the wheat,” he said, pointing out where the heavy weather had broken them off. “Only the small plants in the middle of the plot have survived.”

Hussain, 39, estimated 70 percent of the crop was ruined, with harvest only six weeks away.

Farmers all over Pakistan are suffering the same heartbreak, as a season of unusually heavy rain and cold weather continues to destroy crops across the country.

Heavily in debt and tired of struggling against the worsening effects of climate change, some farmers have decided to abandon crop farming altogether, instead turning to raising cattle and poultry as more reliable sources of income.

“How can I keep growing wheat when I have suffered so much economic damage?” asked Hussain, who said erratic rains had been hurting his harvests since 2011.

“I will grow wheat on one hectare to meet my family’s food needs and on the rest I will establish a cattle pen and poultry farm,” he said.

SWAPPING CROPS FOR CATTLE

Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone, farmers from districts southeast of Islamabad said that delayed or excessive rains, coupled with heavy hailstorms, have nearly flattened their wheat and mustard crops.

“I have no way to pay off my loan, other than resorting to labor at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Islamabad,” said 40-year-old Mujtaba Khan, who wept as he spoke. “I don’t think I will be able to grow crops for the next three years, because it will take too long for me to clear my debt.”

Of the dozens of farmers in Punjab province who spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, most have already reduced their crop farming activities and started raising animals.

A mushrooming of cattle pens around towns and cities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces reflects a growing resignation among farmers that they can no longer make a living from agriculture, experts said.

As unseasonable rain continues, many farmers are still waiting to harvest their crops, three weeks behind schedule. According to farming experts, such delays, as well as hurting harvests, can increase the chances of attack by yellow rust, a fungal disease that hampers photosynthesis and stunts the growth of grain.

Ibrahim Mughal, chairperson of the Pakistan Agri Forum, estimates that unwanted rains in northern Punjab and Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces have resulted in losses of up to 50 percent in wheat, mustard, and maize production. The region accounts for over 65 percent of the country’s total wheat production, according to Mughal.

“If the rains come a month ahead of harvest time – usually April to mid-May – it is always disastrous,” he said in a telephone interview from Lahore.

The Federal Committee on Agriculture had fixed the national wheat production target at 26.3 million tons for the 2014-2015 rabi season, which produces a spring harvest. But officials are pessimistic about achieving those figures.

Instead, “we estimate damages of over three million tons to the crop from this year’s odd rainy season,” said Sikandar Hayat Bosan, federal minister for National Food Security and Research.

For some of Pakistan’s farmers, this year’s damage is the last straw. In Gujar Khan, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Islamabad, wheat and mustard farmer Fareed Khan lost $325,000 worth of crops to heavy rains. Now he’s converting his farmland into a cattle pen.

“How can a farmer like me afford to continue with the cultivation of wheat, when erratic weather has become the foe of farmers?” he asked. -Reuters

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