The landscape always looks picturesque as one nears Khairpur district on the National Highway. Rows of tall date palm trees laden with bright golden colour bunches in orchards dot both sides of the highway. It is usually seen in the June-July period when the crop is about to be harvested.

However, this very view gives a painful feeling these days. Farm labourers had plucked bunches of dates and kept them on tarpaulins to dry them under the sun, as per the conventional practice, but the rains washed them away.

From July’s first week onwards, rainwater in the wake of the pre-monsoon downpour has inundated fields on a wide scale. Date bunches which were still in trees were also damaged to a great degree. Only a smaller quantity, affected growers note, might remain unaffected in case it doesn’t rain more and the sun makes its presence felt in fields. Back-to-back spells of pre-monsoon rainfall have been very unkind to date palms orchards this year, spelling disaster for the crop in areas like Khairpur, Sukkur and Ghotki districts.

Multimillion rupees losses to palm growers and the economy in this under-developed date sector were reported. Rains which started in early July continued until a few days back intermittently. “It is a complete disaster,” said a veteran date palm grower from Khairpur, Qasim Jaskani.

About 80pc of the crop in Sindh has been affected by the monsoon season since the fruit was left open under the sun during the drying process

Last year, he said, rains didn’t cause such damage as the crop had been harvested before the rain spells. “Usually, it starts raining by the end of July/early August by which time growers have already harvested and are subsequently marketing,” he said.

Pakistan is considered the world’s fifth or sixth date producer with a 7 per cent share in global date production as per Pakistan Agriculture Research Council figures. In Pakistan, Sindh produces close to 0.28 million to 0.30m tones out of countrywide production of around 0.55-0.65m tones.

Within Sindh, 85pc of production comes from Khairpur, considered home to date palm cultivation. Climatic conditions here suit the fruit’s production. Around 100kg dates are produced per tree if weather conditions are favourable. Mostly aseel and karblain varieties are grown.

Dates are dried under a conventional process to prepare chuhara for marketing. All varieties are handled in the khajoor mandi of Khairpur and Sukkur, involving around 200 traders. A large number of exporters are associated with dates’ exports besides workers, who arrive from Punjab every harvesting season for work of daily wages.

Soon after harvesting, growers dry dates under sunlight which exposes the crop to all sorts of weather conditions amidst potential risk of damage in case of rains. Reports indicate rains in Khairpur and Sukkur destroyed almost 80pc of produce.

“Everything was floating in rainwater to our misfortune. Around 20pc of the crop might be saved if it doesn’t rain more in the area,” said Haji Khan Khan Mohammad. In his 150 acres orchard with 60,000 trees, he said, he lost 70pc of produce in the Khairpur taluka.

Waqar Phulphoto, another date palm grower, referred to last year’s conditions which he said were favourable. It rained after a major portion of the produce had been plucked in 2021. “I exported 80,000 tonnes of dates safely last year but this year, the weather upset everything,” said Mr Mohammad.

Chuhuara, produced in big quantities, is exportable mainly to India via Dubai. Sindh’s farmers export them to China as well. “From Dubai, dates land in India as trade between Pakistan and the latter has remained closed for quite some time,” said one exporter in Sukkur.

Sukkur-based date trader-cum-exporter Nand Lal assessed that hardly 25pc of the crop might be saved by growers. “I exported 20 containers with 550 bags [each bag of 50kg each] to Dubai last year. Now I don’t think I will be able to export even five containers,” he said. If, for example, 4m bags of chuhara were produced in a season this might drop to 1m bags this year due to widespread damages, he said.

According to Mr Jaskani, the early harvesting of the variety loori had only a negligible share in production and only this variety remained safe. The remainder of the crop was dried on mats under the open sky for a week. “Since the weather was cloudy the drying process got badly affected,” he said.

The horticulture sector rarely gets the required attention from policymakers. The date sector was covered under the World Bank funded multibillion rupees project Sindh Agriculture Growth Project (SAGP) but veteran date growers, who were part of it, believe project authorities didn’t go beyond the conventional approach of distributing mats instead of undertaking some major result-oriented interventions for the sector’s larger interests.

Sindh Abadgar Board (SAB) vice president Mahmood Nawaz Shah pointed out that technology and methodology were missing that otherwise could help in mitigating risk and ensuring better value. “We don’t attach much importance to horticulture as the crop is smaller and the focus remains on major crops thus such areas take a back seat,” he said.

Since, he said, dates have not become table fruit and farmers don’t get the required price they avoid making an investment. “In developed countries dates’ bunches are covered to improve its quality and avoid impacts of climatic conditions inclusive of rains,” he said.

He added sheds are created for the dehydration process that generally is not done here as we opt for sunlight-driven dehydration of fruit which exposes it to all sorts of environmental effects. It requires expenses which our farmers avoid since it increases their investment,” he said.

Sindh Agriculture department says that date palm orchards stood at 41,026ha in Sindh in 2021 when compared with 40,313ha in 2020 and this increase in acreage was attributable to SAGP-related initiatives that motivated farmers to cultivate date crops on a large scale. In terms of production, 224,030 metric tonnes of dates were produced against 219,925 metric tonnes in 2020. Data also showed that Sindh has a share of 38pc in countrywide date palm acreage and over 53pc in terms of fruit production.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 1st, 2022

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