While wheat and watermelon farmers are celebrating an outstanding harvest in Balkh Province, fruit orchard owners are devastated by a terrible yield. The Ministry of Agriculture hopes a number of new policies it is
Despite a recent surplus in wheat and maize production in Balkh this year, much of northern Afghanistan still depends on flower imports from neighbouring Kazakhstan. (Photos: Waheed Orya)
Hanif stands next to his field of wheat with a broad smile on his face. “This is the only year I’m hopeful of a good harvest for wheat and maize,” says the Balkh-based farmer and resident of Khaasapaz village in Dehdadi District.
Only a few miles away, Najib Paasoon, a resident and orchard owner in Charbolak District, stands solemnly by his fruit trees. “This year, it snowed in the first month of spring, which was devastating for all fruit trees, including berries. No tree has more than 15 to 20 fruits this year and even those ones don't seem to be healthy and strong,” Paasoon told Afghanistan Today.
The farmers’ contrasting tales of failure and success reflect the larger picture in Balkh Province, where in many ways it has been a season of two harvests.
The wheat harvest yielded a considerable surplus compared to last year, thanks mainly to stronger rainfall than expected in spring and improved outreach programmes. But harsher winter snows than predicted, combined with natural disasters, means that fruit and berry growers have been left with little to harvest.
Wheat boom, fruit flop
Despite the mixed fortunes, the food output so far this year surpassed last year’s by 30 per cent, according to figures released by the spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. The extra yield is a consequence of a long-term change in policy, argue the authorities.
“The Farmers’ Farm Programme was launched four years ago by the Ministry of Agriculture and with the technical assistance of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and with the financial assistance of Norway.,” Abdul Ghani Moriani, deputy minister for agriculture, told reporters on a recent visit to Balkh. "The goal of this programme is to comprehensively control anything destructive to agriculture.
“We teach methods for farmers through which they can rid their land of destructive elements, without using chemicals or with very little use of chemicals,” said Moriani, emphasizing that chemical-free products are healthier and also more marketable.
Farmers at school
Deputy Minister of Agriculture Abdul Ghani Moriani.
The Farmers’ Food Programme emphasizes training to spread improved agricultural knowledge and technology.
“The farmers learned to plant wheat in rows, not by randomly throwing seeds on the land, which is the traditional way, but by planting in rows, where less seeds will be used. This way it will be easier to get rid of unwanted plants,” said Moriani, outlining a recent initiative for wheat farmers.
Hanif from Dehdadi District says his wheat harvest benefits the most from the training. “Now, I use 16 kilos of wheat in one acre of land in rows," says the farmer, one of thousands in Balkh who attended courses organized by the ministry and the UN.
“Open space classes are held for farmers and around 25 participate each time,” said Shah Mahboob Sadid, an expert on plant-related diseases and a trainer at the FAO. “Then they share their experiences with other farmers while doing practical work.”
Eighteen centres in Balkh, part of 120 nationwide, offer such courses to farmers. The programme costs 7.5 million US dollars, according to Sadid, who adds that 70 trainers now operate across the country.
No fruits of labour
Fruitless orchards in Balkh Province.
But while wheat farmers reap the rewards of the know how across northern Afghanistan, fruit orchard owners have little to celebrate.
“Cold weather has impacted almonds, apples, peaches, and other fruits grown in Balkh,” says Islam-uddin, director of planning and strategy at the provincial Department of Agriculture. “Balkh is relatively out of fruit this year.”
With the exception of water melons, which registered a 50 per cent increase in yield in Balkh this year, thanks mainly to better seeds, training and distribution of fertilizers, fruit harvests generally suffered.
And while a surplus of water melons boosted exports, a deadly associated pest, the melon fly, has crippled the regular melon harvest.
Abdul Aziz grows melons in Faizabad District, Jowzjan Province. “Over the past several years we have not had a good harvest. There is a type of fly that stings melons,” says Aziz. “Once a melon is stung, it is completely destroyed. We have done some treatments this year, but they did not work. Our harvest is extremely tiny,” he laments.
Conquering the melon fly
The Ministry of Agriculture says it has initiated a programme to tackle the disease, which has led to a sharp increase in prices of melon. “To avoid melon fly, bags have been distributed to farmers to put melons in bags so that they do not get stung. They have also been trained in how to bag melons,” says Moriani.
The authorities insist that set backs in Afghanistan’s fruit basket, be it melons or cherries, must not overshadow the overall achievements of agriculture sector, in which 80 per cent of Afghans are involved.
“According to experts, our harvests will be better when compared with the harvest of last year,” Ministry of Agriculture spokesman Abdul Majeed Qaraar told Radio Free Europe. Qaraar says this year’s total food harvest could exceed the six million tons produced last year, which was already a high yield.
Freezers and more cooperatives coming soon?
Melon growers will be hoping they can tackle the dreaded melon fly and attain the bumper harvests that watermelon growers achieved this year.
Which is good news for Afghanistan’s export sector. “Our exports over the first three months of this year have reached 300 million US dollars,” Muhammad Qurban Haqjoo, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Afghanistan, told a recent business gathering in Kabul. Haqjoo says this is a 40 per cent increase on last year.
And the Ministry of Agriculture is promising more investment for next year.
“By the end of this year, the Agricultural Bank is going to become operational. Its paperwork has been completed and once this bank starts to work, farmers will be provided with loans to improve their agriculture,” says Deputy Minister Moriani. According to him, 40 million dollars has already been loaned to farmers and cooperatives so far.
But challenges remain. “Our first plan is to improve agricultural cooperatives. We have considered 30 development projects for them,” says Moriani.
“Our second plan is to build three freezers in big cities, including Mazar-e Sharif, where agricultural products will be stored. Our third plan is to have better quality seeds. And our fourth plan is to improve and spread gardening and raising livestock.”
Meanwhile, orchard owners like Najib Paasoon are waiting to see if the spread of the anti-melon fly bags will pave the way for a bumper harvest in 2014.