Business

Pakistan confronts the curse of potato success

CHITRAL: For Nadir Shah, potatoes have been a blessing – and also a curse.

Two years ago, as increasingly extreme weather battered his wheat crop, the 34-year-old mountain farmer turned to growing potatoes, an experimental crop in the area.

The switch was a huge success. His usual harvest of 10 tonnes of wheat and animal fodder per hectare soared to 55 tonnes, and his income shot up as well, allowing him to make plans for the first time to enroll his oldest child in private school.

The problem is, his neighbors did the same thing. Now, in the Gobor valley where Shah lives, 60 percent of people grow potatoes, and as a result potato prices are plunging, seed is getting ever more costly and nobody’s quite sure how to store or get to market the area’s huge harvest.

Finding ways to adapt to increasingly erratic and severe weather is crucial for farmers in Pakistan and around the world. But adaptation efforts can have unforeseen consequences, creating new problems that also need solutions.

TRANSPORT, STORAGE WOES

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the emerging potato problem in Gobor valley is particularly acute because of the imposing eight-kilometer-long Lowari Tunnel which lies between the region’s potato farmers and the nearest markets in Punjab province.

At the moment it is under repair and open only two days a week.

“The trucks and businessmen have to wait in a queue at the tunnel for five days a week to get the produce to the local markets,” said Amir Hazar, a retired school teacher and farmer. Potato buyers trying to reach farmers face the same barrier, he said.

The transport problems, combined with lack of cold storage in the area, have left 20 percent of Hazar’s potato crop damaged, he said.

“The potato is a perishable crop and we can’t keep it in the field or our homes more than a month,” he said.

Once, cooler temperatures might have let farmers store some of their crop for seed and to eat at home. But warmer temperatures mean potatoes held back from market now often rot.

Shah, who earned 80,000 rupees ($793) from his most recent crop, said half his windfall may need to go to pay for seed potatoes, which now sell at exorbitant prices thanks to soaring demand.

“I know I’ll have to spend half of my earnings to purchase the potato seed for my next crop,” he said.

He urged the provincial government and non-governmental organizations to help farmers build cold storage facilities in Gobor, one of 24 valleys in Chitral district.

Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, a body representing Pakistani farmers, estimates Pakistan will produce over six million tonnes of potatoes this year, while consuming only three million tonnes.

“The surplus production has hit the farmers hard as it has brought down the price to 4,000 rupees ($39.50) per 120 kilograms against 6,000 rupees ($59.30) per 120 kilograms the last year,” he said.

He said middlemen and businessmen were also “slaughtering the growers” by purchasing excess potatoes from farmers at low rates and then banking them in cold storage facilities, which the farmers lack.

The aim, he said, is for “the businessmen (to) create an artificial shortage of the product in the market in next two to three months and (then) start selling it for over 6,000 rupees per 120 kilograms”.

Rao Muhammad Ajmal Khan, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Industries and Production, said the government should make arrangements to export the surplus crop to Russia, the Middle East and Gulf countries to earn foreign exchange and keep the price stable in local markets.

Provincial governments in potato-growing areas, especially Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, should also help growers build local cold storage facilities to protect farmers from exploitation by middlemen, and to keep prices stable in local markets, he said. -Reuters

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