APPLE orchards in lower Swat, particularly in Matta, are losing space to peach farms, farmers say.
“Peach has become the centre of interest for fruit farmers. While apple trees are intact in upper Swat areas like Kalam, Bahrain etc, these are gradually disappearing in lower parts of the districts,” says Abdul Jabbar Khan, president of Anjuman-i-Tahaffuze Zamindaran wa Kashtkaran, Swat.
“Apple orchards, that require cool climate, have been hit by changes in climate and global warming. The trees are becoming susceptible to diseases and insects and are drying up. With decrease in the number of healthy plants, per tree yield of apple has decreased considerably with less profitability,” he said.
“Apple is losing to peaches for other factors also. A peach tree matures early and starts production in 4-5 years while an apple tree bears fruit in 7-10 years. Again, a peach tree bears fruit regularly every year whereas apple has ample yield every alternate year,” he added.
Both apple and peach trees can produce up to 30-40 crates each of 20 and 10 kg respectively if the trees are healthy. “An acre of apple/peach orchard could fetch its owner up to Rs0.4 million but apple production and profitability is coming down.
Earlier around 50-60 trucks load of apples with around 8-10 tons each used to leave the area for markets, now only 4-6 trucks are marketed. Against this, over 100 trucks loaded with peach now leave the area for markets in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi,” Khan said.
According to another Swat farmer Saeed Alam, peach has eight varieties. “ Top 1-3 varieties fetch good prices as these are ready by May-June. Depending on size and quality of the fruit, these are sold at Rs500-600 per crate. These days, varieties 4-6 are being sold at Rs200-350 per crate. The next two varieties also usually fetch good prices in local and outside markets,” he said.
“The costs of transportation of a truck of fruits to Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi are Rs20,000, Rs40,000 and Rs70,000 respectively. Each truck can take a load of around 800 crates of peach and 400 crates of apples. The total cost per crate including transportation and harvesting, comes to around Rs80 per crate. Thus a crate usually fetches around Rs200-400 for the growers though it is sold at much higher prices by commission agents. Had there been big local markets in the area, the growers would have benefited more,” he added.
Orchards are commonly bought by fruit dealers before the start of the fruiting season. Farmers prefer this deal as they get risk-free cash payments in advance. But in this case, the rates are far less than the market price at the time of harvest.
Pre- and post-harvest losses are estimated at 30-40 per cent on account of windstorm, hailstorm, diseases and outdated harvesting techniques.
“While value-addition can be a thriving business in the area, it is regrettable that there are no processing plants, neither the people have the means to enter into such lucrative business. The government and private investors are needed to set up such plants in the area,” said Khan.
According to a fruit dealer in Mingora, peaches and apples in the past were packed in wooden crates but now these were being packaged in paper cartons. “Paper cartons may be good from environmental point of view but cannot save fruit against rain and sustain weight pressure during transportation. As a result, huge losses are suffered by farmers, he said.
The absence of cold storages in Matta and shortage elsewhere are also a problem, according to Khan. “There was only one peach specific cold storage in Mingora but it has been closed. The other is in the city which can only provide space to fruit dealers for a month. More such cold storages are needed in the area but they cannot be set up because of acute power shortage,” he added.
The period between June and September is the fruit season in Swat. The local fruit industry provides employment to 70 per cent of locals including females in spraying, pruning, packing and transportation at fruit orchards.
In 2007-08 together with Swat, Malakand division accounted for 30 per cent of provincial plums yield, eighty per cent of persimmon, 67 per cent of apricots and over 82 per cent of apple and peach yields.
A farmer said non-governmental-organisations should offer cash grants or soft loans and modern technology with training to farmers for saving their orchards from diseases. “Far-flung areas such as Kabal, Matta and other upper Swat areas need to be given proper attention to augment fruit production,” he said.
Most of the 0.3 million farmers in Swat are small and poor who cannot afford to buy agricultural inputs.
They should be offered agriculture inputs free or at subsidised rates to nurture their fruit plants.