The private sector should also set up its own soil testing laboratories in farming areas to supplement the work of the public sector. - File photo

“I AM 70 and have never used the soil testing technology so far,” says Niaz Muhammad, a Swat-based farmer. “Such technologies are only for big farmers of the plains and not for the poor growers of remote areas,” he says.

Most farmers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have remained deprived of the enormous benefits of soil testing technology due to apparent failure of the government to sponsor it in the province. Many farmers still do not know why this technology is essential and how it is beneficial because of the limited outreach of the programme.

The reason is simple: the concerned department officials do not contact farmers at their doorsteps. The outcome is low per acre yield. Nutrient depletion and land degradation are the major factors for low agricultural productivity.

Addition of toxic and harmful substances to the soil in significant quantities contaminates it and disturbs its chemical composition. This is generally caused by application of chemical industrial wastes and excessive or inappropriate use of fertilisers and pesticides.

The soil in any country, based on its composition, has been divided into eight categories. The first has the least limitations for agricultural use and can give high yield of crop with proper management. Categories II and III have relatively more limitations for farm use and need better management. The problems are severer in category IV soil which, though capable of producing a few marginal crops, has little ability for improvement. Soils from categories V to VII are not suited to arable farming but can be used for rangeland or forestry. Soil of category VIII is barren.

Application of suitable fertiliser and pesticides to the soil, at appropriate time and in proper way and quantity increases its productivity by 30-50 per cent. The soil testing technology helps determine the kinds of chemical input the soil needs to improve its output.

“In agriculture offices in some districts and research stations on different crops - for example, the tobacco research stations, sugar/cereal crops research institutes - there are soil testing laboratories where soil samples are examined, analysed and the results conveyed to farmers suggesting the requirements of the land under their use. The growers are also helped and guided how to improve its fertility,” said an official.

“It is with the help of this technology that farmers are able to control the degradation and improve physical properties of land to increase yield and ensure prosperity for the farmers,” he added, emphasising the need to increase the number of soil testing laboratories across the province to facilitate the growers.

Sabir Ali Khan, another farmer from Swabi, says that after repeated poor yields, he had a chance to get the soil tested in a laboratory which diagnosed its deficiencies and enabled him to take measures to increase its productivity.

Farmers often opt to use or reject a particular technology on the basis of their interest, experience, the cost of the product and their financial position. They usually oppose new technologies and strategies but once their utility is established, they adopt it. But this requires expertise, contacts and sufficient strength of extension personnel, which unfortunately are lacking here.

Small farmers lack resources to approach the research and extension systems. The department with its aversion to participatory approach i.e. working together with farmers in the target area, has also left them in the lurch.

Average per hectare yield of wheat in KP is much less than the national average. In 2007-08, the national average yield per hectare was 2,585kg for the country while for KP it was 1471kg. Average sugarcane yield by progressive farmers is around 40 tons per acre while ordinary farmers still have per acre yield of around 16-20 tons. Per acre yield of maize in central Punjab has gone up to 4,600 kg, whereas it is generally between 700-1,200kg in KP.

“Soil testing laboratories should be established in all district and tehsils of the province with the use of geographical information system for assessment and mapping of soil fertility.

Soil testing laboratories had been promised at the model farm services centres in all districts but these are yet to be provided in most of the districts.

The private sector should also set up its own soil testing laboratories in farming areas to supplement the work of the public sector.