LAHORE: Exporters expect a good sale season ahead as potato harvesting starts and production looks set to rise because of massive expansion in acreage amid increased international demand with Covid situation easing.

In Punjab, which contributes over 80 per cent of national production, potato acreage went up by a massive 35pc – from 545,000 acres to 740,400 acres this season. Weather stayed favourable for most of the crop life cycle, and farmers hope for a record crop. They, however, fear drop in prices, terming it a tough season.

“There was a brief frost threat to crop early January but the crop escaped any major damage,” says Maqsood Jatt, chairman of the Potato Research Board. So, the final yield is expected to multiply this season. How much? It would become clear by the end of February. So far, potato digging has not gone more than 10pc, so it would be too early to forecast the final figure.

Research board says official acreage figures reflect only half of what field reports suggest

Mr Jatt also doubts official acreage figures, saying that field reports suggest at least double the numbers claimed by provincial Crop Reporting wing. “We have been living in the middle of potato area and get daily feedback on acreage and yield situation. I can claim with confidence that the official figures reflect half of what our field reports suggest,” he insists.

“Slow start of season (price wise) also gives clue of things to come,” says Abad Khan, a farmer from the area. Last year, the early digging (premature harvesting, when skin is too tender to be stored) had a rate ranging between Rs3,000 to Rs3,500 per bag (122kg), whereas this season has seen it dropping down to Rs1,800 to Rs2,000. Potato is expected to have a tough season this year for many factors.

Storage charges have gone up by almost 100pc because of ever-increasing electricity rates. No new storage capacity is added in the province. Last year, the entire capacity was eaten up by the crop. Where would additional yield go this season? This would naturally be thrown in the market, creating a glut and affecting price, Mr Khan fears.

Maqsood Jatt, however, thinks that once stores start functioning, which they have beginning to do, price should stabilise. Early harvest is always cheaper but it slowly starts improving and this season should not be any exception to this rule, he hopes.

Waheed Ahmed of the Fruits and Vegetables Exporters Association thinks that a few variables, which would become clear in the next few weeks would determine the export fate. However, additional yield and low price so far augur well. “We (exporters) have had challenges of high freight charges and non-availability of containers in case of Kinnow this season. Both of them would impact the potato season as well. But yes, additional production and price so far generate hopes for better season.”

The final figures would, however, be determined how Pakistan’s competitors perform. What is the situation of Russian crop, how Turkey comes out, how Egypt performs and how Indian crop comes out? But, Pakistan would certainly have advantage in countries, where it can supply by road; Afghanistan and the Central Asian States, for that matter. Pakistan has seen its fruits and vegetables exports growing by 12.5pc in 2019-20 and another 10.5pc last year as the Covid situation starts easing and people shift to improved diet. “Let us hope for the best,” Mr Ahmed suggests.

Given the expected quantum of crop, the Punjab is considering an “emergency plan” to increase exports. According to its officials, they would be writing shortly to the federal government to take steps and its readiness to play its part.

“Our main fear is that farmer would suffer as a result of better, rather record, crop, which create glut conditions and price crash. In order to save farmers, it is necessary to come up with an emergency export plan,” says one of its officials.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2022

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