WHILE potato growers in upper Swat had not yet recovered from the huge losses caused by the floods and militancy, the dilapidated communication infrastructure in the area is adding to their woes.

Most of the bridges destroyed by last year’s deluge have been temporarily restored but the road from Madyan to Kalam, the potato growing strip, is yet to be rebuilt. This has made transportation of the crop from Kalam and other upper Swat areas difficult, costly and unaffordable for growers.

Officials claimed that the reconstruction work would be finished within a year but the pace of work indicates it may take much longer for the actual completion. If the monsoon this year triggers floods again, access to upper Swat may become impossible.

Shah Abdar, president of model farm services centre, upper Swat, says the hilly cold terrain grows quality potato in abundance. “In areas which are accessible, the commodity fetches handsome returns to the farmers.” he said.

“Large size, good quality and taste are the hallmarks of Swat potato but the middlemen and commission agents reap most of the profits. Average per hectare yield of the crop in KP and the country is 12 and 17 metric tons respectively but it is around 20MT in Swat,” he added.

According to him, Kalam potato farmers had greatly benefited from the support and guidance offered by the Switzerland-funded Kalam integrated development project but communication problems are diminishing its impact.

Tor Gul, another potato farmer from Miandam, Swat, said the seeds-production ratio for potato was up to 1:10. “It means that one sack of potato seeds weighing 90kg produces about 900kg of potato and even more. An acre of potato crop yields around 360 maunds (14MT) in Swat,” he said.

Going by the current market price, an acre’s harvest can fetch up to Rs0.36 million for farmers. In the international market it could fetch $7,000 or Rs0.59mn (average price of $500 per metric ton).

To fetch a good price, the farmers in some areas like Miandam harvest their crop before maturity. However, it too has its related problems. “The potatoes so harvested are small, decay quickly and hence need to be used within weeks but nevertheless provide us the growers good returns. The more the delay, the lesser the price at the market,” says Gul.

Elsewhere overproduction, rather than under production, is the problem.

“Inadequate storage, processing facilities and the manipulation of the market by middlemen results in price volatility as not all excess production can be stored or processed for consumption during the off season. Sometimes there is surplus production that crashes prices at the market hitting the farmers and then there is limited supply that hits the common man with price increase. This can be avoided by proper bulk storage facility, regulated marketing system and efficient delivery of potato in the market,” another farmer Bakht Biland Khan, said.

Limited grading and labelling of the produce, absence of regulated local potato purchase along export facilitation centres and market information system are the other major problems faced by potato growers.

Despite favourable climatic conditions for the three potato crops, KP has a meagre share in countrywide potato yield. Its output was about 0.12 million tons from 10,000 hectares in 2010 against 3.4 million tons from 149,000 hectares in the country.The main potato producing areas in KP are Nowshera, Dir, Mansehra, Upper Swat, Chitral and Mardan. Potato crop is sown both in summer and winter in Swat with seeds obtained from Punjab.

An estimated 20 per cent potato is wasted post harvest primarily due to improper handling and lack of proper cold storage facilities. A survey report by a foreign agency has estimated that about 10 per cent reduction in post-harvest losses cane save Rs6 billion.

Potatoes are sold at around $500 per metric ton in the world market. Despite having export potential worth $1bn, Pakistan’s total potato exports were just $50 million in 2009. Lack of credit facilities is the main snag for small growers. In some areas of Chitral this year, potato farmers were unable to buy standardised seed from the market as banks denied or delayed credit facilities.