By Muhammad Luqman
Photography: Muhammad Luqman
Tunnel farming is not less than a windfall for farmers in Punjab and other upper parts of Pakistan as vegetables grown two months ahead of the actual time window fetch three to five times more price.
Recent uppish trends in the prices of the kitchen crops especially tomatoes and onions have made off-season veggies technology more popular among the farmers.
“I sold cucumbers grown at my farm at a rate of Rs 50 per kilogram last month. But these are now fetching now Rs 22 per kilogram in the whole sale market, almost twice the prices these are sold for in season,” says Allah Rakha, an owner of a farm in Kharianwala in Central Pakistan province of Punjab.
Tunnels, the structures comprising steel pipes covered by plastic sheets have lately mushroomed in Pakistan’s plains, mostly in central Punjab districts of Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib and Gujranwala, following the suit of farms in Khyber Pakhtun Khawa, the north-western province.
Besides Cucumbers, other high-value vegetables grown in Pakistan through tunnel farming include- tomatoes, chilies, Caspicum (Shimla Mirch) and gourds.
The nurseries of tomatoes, chilies and caspcus are being transplanted these days in Punjab and the crop is expected to be at fruiting stage by February.
The technology not only helps produce the crop at least two months earlier than the traditional cultivation season but also saves the crop from all sorts of severe weather and handling related problems. In Punjab, the provincial government is providing subsidy for the purchase of drip irrigation gadgets while USAID is providing technical and financial assistance to growers in Khyber Pakhtun Khawa. But due to lack of awareness, the area under tunnel farms in Punjab is not more than 350 acres which is just iota when compared to millions of acres of agriculture land in the province.
“More and more growers should turn to this technology; We are ready to provide all sorts of assistance,” says Dr. Zafaryab Hyder , Director General Agriculture Extension, Punjab.
In spite all the constraints, the new technology has opened new vistas of prosperity for the farmers who had been victim of subsistence culture over the last several decades. Just a decade ago, the people of Punjab had to relish on the vegetables grown in the neighboring provinces of Sindh, Khyber PakhtunKhawa and Balochistan at exorbitant prices. The vegetables like bitter gourd, okra, peas , tomatoes, chilies , cucumbers from other provinces fetched atleast twice as compared to those produced in the Punjab just a couple of months later. However, the introduction of tunnel farming has produced new array of opportunities, initially for the progressive farmers who can get price for tomatoes, capsicum (Bell Peppers) thrice in early time window than the traditional season of cultivation. The owners of land tracts with tunnel farming are mostly educated youth, mostly agriculture graduates and Masters’ in Business Administration. They are no more being exploited by the middle man.
Rather, they provide high-value off-season vegetables directly to hotels and departmental stores. Besides vegetables, even the growers of strawberry in Lahore and Sheikhupura districts have adopted the tunnel farming to protect their crops from the severe weather conditions. With the passage of every day, the future of this new technology is becoming more and more bright especially the fertile agricultural lands of Punjab. The future of tunnel farming seems bright in Pakistan as growers have started embracing the technology lately.
However, the ongoing smoggy weather in the Central Pakistan has cast ill-effects on the crop with hindering the photosynthesis process much needed for the plant growth. Growers fear that per acre yield may decline drastically if the unfavorable weather conditions continue.