FARM workers sort out immature mangoes and pack them in boxes at an orchard in Tandojam on Monday.—Photo by Umair Ali

A harvest fit for a king

In the searing June heat, scores of workers gather under tree canopies across Sindh’s mango-growing regions to harvest and pack the fruit.
Published June 17, 2024

“BIRDS are the first to learn that mangoes are ready for harvest,” Mir Shah Mohammad Talpur says, picking up a mango that has been bitten by a bird.

Strolling under the huge canopy of one of the oldest trees in his over 450-plus acres of orchards, Mir remarks that the size of a tree’s canopy is a good indicator of how large its root zone would be. “A mango tree protects its roots first,” he explains.

Even in the shade, it is sizzling hot. Labourers, some as young as 12, are busy handling the harvest, while others are preparing wooden boxes (known locally as bardana) and stuffing them with mangoes. Harvesting on Mir’s farm has been underway since the first week of June.

Mango picking is a conventional affair at old-school orchards like Mir’s; workers scale trees, pluck the unripe fruit and throw it to their colleagues on the ground.

Only few growers have adopted progressive farming in Sindh so far.

In the searing June heat, scores of workers gather under tree canopies across Sindh’s mango-growing regions to harvest and pack the fruit

June coincides with picking season, primarily for the Sindhri variety.

 Labourers wait to catch mangoes picked by their colleagues, who send down the fruit from their perch in the branches.—Umair Ali
Labourers wait to catch mangoes picked by their colleagues, who send down the fruit from their perch in the branches.—Umair Ali

This year’s season witnessed some variations in weather, which delayed flowering and fruiting amid extended periods of colder weather. Now, picking seasons is at its peak, though there will be a lull during the Eid holidays.

“Once the fruit starts falling from a branch, it marks the ripening. We say shaakh aa gaee [the branch has arrived]. It is the stone that matures first in the mango,” says Talpur.

“The Sindhri harvested in Naukot and the ones we here have are visibly different, both in look and shape,” says Kewal Kohli, who hails from Nagarparkar.

Picking all the fruit from a 150-acre portion of Mir’s farm will take Kewal and his team around 25 days, since the crop yield is good.

In Naukot, his team had picked Sindhri and Dussehri from 400 acres over a period of 20 days in May.

Some of the workers hail from Punjab’s Seraiki belt. They are known for their command in packaging of fruit and preparing bardana — something local labour is not very adept at. “Once the season finishes here, we will head for Balochistan to handle the apple harvest and then the citrus fruit season awaits us in November. We harvest watermelons in Badin in March-April as well,” says Mohammad Khan, one of the workers from Punjab.

While Sindhri starts appearing on pushcarts in May, it is June that actually heralds the arrival of a fully tasty fruit, according to veteran producer Ghulam Sarwar Abro. “Nature has made June ideal for picking Sindhri as it develops all of its characteristics by then,” says Abro, who owns a progressive mango orchard.

Conventionally, the Mirpurkhas belt reports the first pickings, which heralds the commencement of mango season.

Usually, immature Sindhri is picked first by growers, who harvest it as early as end of April or early May, to capitalise on the market and export the fruit.

Mir, however, doesn’t believe in early picking. His orchard is located in a rural taluka near Hyderabad city. The hub of Sindhri production stretches from here to Mirpurkhas, which has a rich legacy of Sindhri orchards. He doesn’t use tractors to plough the land, for he believes that would kill the roots, and mostly depends on organic matter to meet the needs of soil and trees.

“Leaves falling from trees get mixed with soil and other residuals to become organic matter. Then the fertiliser uptake coupled with irrigation water supplies ensures nutrients,” he points out. “It is said that the old course of the mighty Indus used to pass through this region and has left the soil in this belt very rich and fertile,” Mir says.

At any conventional orchard, the height of a mango tree varies between 30ft to 40ft, with thick stems and branches, making picking a difficult task.

This is unlike high-density farms, where the job is easily done. “Yes, we let out the farm to contractors to reap the harvest. It is now the contractor’s job to arrange labourers for harvest and picking,” Mir insists.

“We take care of fertilisation. Besides, irrigation water supplies is also my responsibility. The contractor can spray pesticides if need be, but this is something we usually cater for,” he says. In Mir’s case, the contractor this year is an Iranian national who is sending most of the consignment to his country.

Only some growers have opted for modern farming practices including high-density farming. Fewer still don’t outsource farms to contractors.

Sarwar Abro, Babar Ismail and Imdad Nizamani are among those few who sell their fruit themselves in the market. “If we avoid managing our farms we will be causing loss to our economy, fruit and orchards,” Abro says.

Contractors have been dominating the mango landscape for years. Deals will be struck for next year shortly after the current harvest is over. They have the knack to assess how the same orchard will behave production-wise. Some Karachi-based contractors have invested billions of rupees in contracts.

“Contractors have strong links across Pakistan’s markets, staying in touch round the clock to know how the market will behave in the next few hours. A contractor even changes the route of his consignment and diverts it to the destination where, price-wise, the market is going his way,” contends Nizamani, a name to reckon with in mango farming.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2024