The growth in tunnel farming in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has started paying dividends as demonstrated by the off season tomato currently bringing windfall for its growers.
Farmers started applying high and low tunnel farming techniques a few years ago in the central and southern parts of the province, venturing into the uncharted territory of off-season vegetable production.
Similarly, the change recorded in the potato production trends also reflects gains for the progressive small farmers. The government has provided initial investment required for erecting tunnels made of plastic pipes and polythene. According to official estimates, an investment ranging anywhere between Rs500,000 and Rs1 million is needed for this purpose.
Off-season vegetable production has been on the rise after some of the more progressive horticulturists from Nowshera, Peshawar, Swabi, and Mardan districts opted successfully for off-season tomato and cucumber.
However, in the absence of the official data, it is difficult to quantify the improvement in the off-season vegetable production.
Tunnel farming is seen as the way forward as it provides an answer to depleting farming area and increasing demand for vegetables due to population growth, according to Fazale Mabood, director at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Agriculture Extension.
The KP farmers took a clue from Punjab where tunnel farming has been under practice for quite some time.
“We provided the necessary technical expertise when contacted by some of the progressive farmers from Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, and Nowshera districts,” said Mr Mabood.
However, the lack of finances appears to be a major impediment in small cultivators going for tunnel farming. Many of them want to emulate some of the progressive growers who raised potato plants through tunnel farming at the end of the last harvesting season.
According to Khalid Khan, a farmer from district Swabi, a vegetable grower in his area made significant profit from off-season tomato last year.
“He got a produce of 2500 kilogram tomato from an area of just 13 kanals,” said Mr Khan.
The grower sold the crop at Rs400 per 40 kilogram, which, according to Mr Khan, was better than the tobacco crop income last year.
Similar trends have been reported from Peshawar valley. According to Mr Mabood, a Peshawar farmer planted off-season tomato last November at Banda Sheikh Ismail, district Nowshera. The crop was marketed in February, when the local markets ran short of tomato supplies and prices were higher.
Being a summer crop, tomato plantation starts in February/March and the harvest season falls in May/June in the Peshawar valley.
Similarly, horticulturalists in the southern parts of the province, including Karak, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, and Lakki Marwat, where vegetable production has not been a popular idea, cultivators have started embracing tunnel farming.
According to Mr Khan, tunnel farming may turn around cropping patterns in Swabi district. Small tobacco growers would like to switch over to off season vegetables if they are provided financial support by the government.
“They want to get rid of the manipulative practices of cigarette manufacturers and their agents, the growers’ work hard, raising plant nurseries and taking care of the tobacco crop for eight long months, but they do not get a fair price,” said Mr Khan.
He believes the funding can be arranged locally by involving local non-governmental organisations working in the agriculture sector.
This seems a way out to discourage tobacco production by promoting alternative crops in Swabi, he added.