WITH persistent rains in the central Punjab not allowing any reduction in the humidity level in the last few weeks, potato harvesting has been delayed.
For harvesting, the moisture level has to be less than 60 per cent in the ridges. But continual rains (it is still raining at the time of writing), have kept the moisture much above the permissible level.
If the harvesting is delayed for another week or so, which seems to be a distinct possibility now with the current spell of rain, the farmers would suffer on two accounts: dip in domestic price and closing window for export.
The spillover of delayed potato harvesting, which would cause corresponding delay in winter corn, would make it more damaging for farmers.
Potato is fast emerging as another cash crop for farmers in the central Punjab because of better hybrid seeds and high yields. A comparison with other crops makes the point clearer. The national wheat yield average is less than 30 maunds, paddy ranges between 50 to 60 maunds and spring corn between 80 to 100 maunds. The potato yield touches 400 maunds – 400 per cent more than its nearest rival. That is precisely why over a million tonnes have been added to national production in the last few years, and it is still on the rise.
This year, that profitability of farmers is at stake. Out of current seeds, some potato varieties mature in 90 days and others in 110 days. With delay in harvesting, the entire crop would hit the market simultaneously, generating glut and price crash. Early clues to such a crash are already emerging.
By the end of last week, the farm sale price had already dipped to Rs8 per kilogramme against officially calculated cost of production of around Rs8.75 per kilogramme. One should not forget that the major glut is still to follow. If weather clears by the last week of February and the sun comes out, even then it would take a while for the humidity level to drop down to harvesting-permitting line.
In that case, the first two weeks of March would see the entire crop being dumped in the market, leading to further price erosion. However, if March also turns to be cold and cloud cover persists, the farmers’ woes would only multiply beyond tolerance.
The problems would not stop here for farmers. The delay in potato harvesting will equally delay the winter maize sowing. The most propitious sowing time for current corn hybrid seeds is mid-February, which has already been missed. The delay in sowing can cause reduction of yield up to 35 per cent, depending on the time lag.
Even if it is sown by first week of March, the yield can suffer by 10 per cent. The yield loss may not matter much in national context as the winter crop forms only 30 per cent of national production, but individual farmers would certainly suffer financially. The changing weather has thus put farmers in double jeopardy: on the one hand, they fear potato prices and, on the other, corn yield loss.
The closing opportunity for export of potato would only double the loss for the farmers and the country. Both India and Pakistan have monopoly in winter crop. By mid-April other players like Egypt enter the Middle Eastern market. The Saudis are already discouraging agriculture because of sub-soil water issues. The decision gave Pakistan a big opportunity to move beyond traditional export markets and expand into Saudi Arabia. The new markets, however, would stand compromised with delay in harvesting, and increased competition in Middle Eastern market.
Pakistan, particularly Punjab, which contributes more than 90 per cent to national potato production, should plan domestic production and export better. It has one million tonnes of surplus production in its current settings. Any addition to it, for better seed or increase in acreage, would ensure domestic glut if foreign markets are not found. That scenario has to be avoided through better planning.
With potato emerging as export crop, Punjab needs to realise that that major problem for it is non-availability of any internationally acceptable seed. Most of the farmers have to use imported seed either from Holland or India for maintaining quality and quantity of their produce. This import makes potato growing a highly expensive business.
On the seed head alone, farmers have to invest over Rs120,000 per acre if import is from Holland and around Rs90,000 per acre in case of Indian seed. With such a heavy investment on this head alone, slightest damage to yield hurts farmer beyond redemption. This is exactly what is happening this year. Harvesting delay would also lead to greening of crop and further compromise on quality.
Punjab also needs to ensure application of balanced fertiliser, because it is especially crucial for short duration crops like potato. It needs a good doze of phosphorus, potash and nitrogen. Even India has moved beyond normal fertilisers and is applying growth and hormones regulators for its potatoes.
The competition for potato markets is also increasing with Bangladesh joining the list of exporters and Sri Lanka encouraging and protecting its own farmers with a stiff duty regime of 30 per cent. India has always been a major player and is expanding its production and role, both internationally and regionally.
All these factors should make part of the potato planning because of changing realities of the crop; it is fast becoming cash and export crop. — Ahmad Fraz Khan