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Changing wheat sowing regime

November 26, 2012

WITH the introduction of new cotton varieties, the wheat sowing regime in Punjab is undergoing a major shift, with mounting risks to wheat production and food security.

As conventional wisdom holds, November 20th is the deadline for wheat sowing. It has never been met. For last five years, Punjab has not been able to go beyond the annual average of 42 per cent of sowing by that date, if official statistics are to go by. Actually, the figure is coming down: It was well over 60 per cent by the turn of the century. Behaviour in individual years has been more erratic than suggested by the average for the past half decade.

The reason behind this is the new varieties of cotton, which have turned it into an almost 10 months’ crop.

With early cotton sowing being carried out in February in some parts of the province, the final termination is delayed right up to December — depending on the market price. All the six million acres under cotton constitute around 30 per cent of wheat area. Wheat sowing statistics are thus largely linked to cotton harvesting.

Similarly, four million acres under rice are also wheat acreage. It takes away another 20 to 23 per cent of wheat area, which is always instrumental in delaying the wheat sowing because of high moisture content — especially if there are late -October rains.

Same is the case with sugarcane harvesting, which occupies another two million acres.

It also means another ten per cent wheat area. Vacating this area directly depends on cane crushing season.

Unfortunately, the deadline for the start of crushing season has become irrelevant in the province. With the entire ruling class owning sugar mills, no one can force them to meet any deadline. They start crushing late November or early December, depending on calculation of weather and sucrose content equation, regardless of the cost of the cropping pattern.

The wheat sowing thus is a hostage to three other overlapping crops — cotton, cane and rice. Unless, the government regulates the sowing and harvesting time of these three crops through legislation and ensures its effective enforcement, on-time wheat sowing will remain an un-fulfilled dream — and with it, the national food security.

This year’s sowing statistics only add urgency to the situation. By November 17, Punjab had sown only 6.2 million acres against its total target of 18.6 million acre— or 37 per cent of the target.

Regional deciphering sowing targets prove the point. The cotton belt was lagging far behind and had achieved only 13 per cent of sowing target; only 800,000 acres sown out of target of 6.3 million acres in the area. Last year, the figure was 1.1 million in the belt. Two factors, one unusual but part of climatic change and one usual, hit sowing. The recent floods displaced a portion of population in the area, which is still to completely settle back in their homes and on their lands. The cotton prices started rising and farmers are now tendering the crop for maximum yield. On the basis of additional care, Punjab has revised upwards its cotton target from nine million bales to 9.6 million bales but wheat sowing is suffering.

The barani (rain-fed) belt is leading the sowing drive with 90 per cent of 1.2 million acres target already sown. The late October rains in these areas have benefited farmers and the soil in the area.

The current sowing figure is five per cent more than the last year’s performance till November 17.

The mixed area (excluding cotton and barrani belt), which has 9.2 million acres target, has crossed 50 per cent with 4.7 million acres already-sown. Last year, the figure in the area was only 2.7 million acres. In the mixed area, a new technique being promoted by Punjab is paying off: zero tillage in the rice belt.

The Punjab Agriculture Department is telling farmers there to sow wheat in the residual moisture content, which the late-October rains have left in the soil. By doing sowing, the farmers are saving two weeks of soil preparation and controlling moisture content.

Otherwise, with night time temperatures dropping in central Punjab, which could have retained moisture in soil for a longer period, it could have an additional week and correspondingly delay wheat sowing.

This sets the context for the Punjab government to prepare a year-round calendar for all the crops that it wants to sow. It has to make sure that every crop gets proper time to perform and also vacates the soil on-time for the next crop.

All the scientists working on individual crops should be made to understand importance of the next one, and fit their crop in window assigned to them. The same should be true for the industry as well. The planners, scientists and the industry should sit together, share their demands and pool their resources to develop a new year-long protocol for the crops.

It would also mean pushing scientists to develop new shorter-period seeds for different crops.

In current setting, every crop seems to be eating into time span of the next one and keep productivity to the lowest. Every crop should have a specific sowing and harvesting time and researchers and scientists be pressed into coming up with solution.

Left to their own, the industry is bound to act selfish and farmers greedy for short-term financial gains — harming the cropping pattern and food security of the country.