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Promising outlook for minor crops

PRODUCTION of minor crops is estimated to have increased by about 6.7 per cent this year, against the target of 4.5 per cent, according to a recent report of the National Accounts Committee.

Traders in Karachi’s Jodia Bazaar estimate the cumulative output of both black and white varieties of gram to have tripled to 900,000 tonnes from just around 300,000 tonnes last season. White gram, or chick peas, grown in highlands of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) constitutes a very small percentage of total gram production. The bulk of it, black gram, comes from Punjab.

Output of gram has surged on the availability of additional land, and an increase in per acre yield. Gram needs moderate water supply and normal climatic conditions, and growers who have reported higher yields had been blessed with both during Kharif cropping this year.

Many farmers have reported multiple harvestings, as gram matures in 90 to 120 days. Meanwhile, moong production is estimated to have crossed 100,000 tonnes from 93,000 tonnes last year – a modest rise in 2013 after a huge 22 per cent growth seen in 2012.

Cotton growers, whose standing crops were flattened by heavy rains during and after maturity in Punjab, found additional land for cultivation of lentils, including moong. And in some districts, “growers had sown moong and other minor crops alongside lands where major crops were grown, and even on peripheries of fruit farms and orchards,” a progressive grower, Malik Sakhawat, told Dawn.

Sunflower (seed) production is reported to have also risen from last year’s low level of 473,000 tonnes, to more than half a million tonnes, according to information obtained from agricultural departments of Sindh and Punjab. Growers in Sindh say that in some areas like Thatta, Badin and Mirpurkhas, per-acre yield has gone up to 20-25 maunds this year, and overall output in the province is going to range between 200,000-250,000 tonnes, up from 187,000 tonnes last year, but far below 2011’s record level of 342,000 tonnes.

A Mirpurkhas-based progressive grower, Fazal I Memon, told Dawn that in 2011, sunflower cultivation was at its peak for a variety of reasons, including the availability of additional land after cotton crop losses. Since this year’s cotton crop in the province has been much larger than before, sunflower got a little less of farmers’ attention. Sindh produces about 30 per cent of Pakistan’s total sunflower.

Meanwhile, traders of oil seeds in Jodia Bazaar say they have field reports suggesting that the country’s overall production this year may be closer to the 2010-11’s record output of 643,000 tonnes.

All of this has been a real blessing at a time when the country is in need of exploiting full potential of agriculture to accelerate economic growth, create jobs and cut import bills. But building upon the gains in minor crops recorded in the recent past requires a clearer understanding of the issues that impede growth of this vital sub-sector of our agriculture.

“Unless we significantly increase the yields of oilseeds, we can’t attain the main objective of import substitution,” says the chairman of Agri Forum Pakistan, Ibrahim Mughal. He laments that average yields of rapeseed, mustard, and canola are far below the global average, while soybean is cultivated on a very small scale, and no major initiatives are in sight to promote sunflower, which is a very successful crop.

After full devolution of agriculture from July 2011, provinces should have come up with comprehensive agricultural development plans. But their efforts to boost farming activities still remain fragmented.

Sunflower, mustard/rapeseed, soybean and canola oilseeds had got policy attention during the 1990s and 2000s, and the oilseeds development board had made some efforts to increase their outputs. Olive cultivation in KP and Potohar region was recently stepped up. But as things stand today, soybean production is restricted to a few thousand tonnes, and olive cultivation has yet to be produced on a large commercial scale.

Meanwhile, the production of millet, sorghum, sesame and barley, some of the least-focused minor crops, also has not been enough to make a significant impact on local food industry, or to earn sizable foreign exchange. Barley has a lot of export potential if we can add value to it, and produce a variety of confectionary items and drinking delights. But our barley production has remained stagnant around 265,000 tonnes per year for the last seven years, according to the database of the United States Agriculture Department.

No estimate of barley output for this year is available, but officials of provincial agriculture departments say they have no reports of any major change in the area under cultivation of this important minor crop.

Provincial agriculture departments rely on their field officers to collect data on all crops grown in the province, but these officials normally restrict their field activities to major crops, and “statistics on minor crops, at best, present intelligent guesstimates,” laments an official of the Multi Food International, a leading company that is involved in imports and exports of food items.

Despite costlier and least-dependable supply of electricity for tube wells, and gas and growers’ limited access to formal sources of borrowing, a better-than-targeted performance of minor crops has become possible due to increased awareness about the return on these crops.

Another thing that has been helpful is the recent expansion in solvent extraction and edible oil manufacturing base (in case of oilseeds), and higher local consumption at household and industrial levels (in case of lentils and pulses).

Maize, although no more a minor crop, has also shown signs of improvement for the same reason. National Accounts Committee estimates show that maize output during this year has gone up to 4.7 million tonnes against last year’s 4.27 million tonnes. — Mohiuddin Aazim