Vege-trouble

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Vegetable belts of Budgam produce 1,20,000 metric tonnes of vegetables out of which 54,000 metric tonnes are exported. But a host of reasons are putting vegetable cultivation under stress. Zubair A. Dar reports.
Every day at dawn, Mohammad Sultan Bhat of Dawlatpora resumes tending seedlings at the vegetable farm near his village. He carefully examines each plant for disease. His hands reach for the weeds at the surface of the farmland to pull them out. The expert vegetable farmer can sense from the texture of the surface whether plants need water between intermittent rains or not. That has been his livelihood activity for the past 40 years.
“I began cultivating vegetables over one kanal of land. Now I have extended my farm to five kanals,” says Bhat.
In five villages around Dawlatpora in Chadoora area of central Budgam district, farmers like Bhat produced 87,480 quintals of vegetables last year. Farmers cultivate 437 hectares of land for vegetables in this cluster – one of many such clusters in Chadoora with a total area of 2070 hectares. The agriculture department says that 60 percent of their produce is exported while the rest is consumed in domestic markets.
Total production of vegetables in Budgam amounts to 1,20,000 metric tonnes out of which 54,000 metric tonnes are exported. Cabbage, cauliflower and potato  are the main crops.  
The productivity, according to the agriculture department, is ever growing as more and more farmland is being brought under vegetable cultivation. The farmers though are not contented. Host of reasons is putting vegetable cultivation under stress.
For farmers, the most worrying factor is the fluctuating rates of seeds and uncertainty in demand.
“Last year, we got potato seed at 2500 rupees per quintal,” says Bhat. “On the contrary, we sold each quintal of produce at Rs 1200.” The rates depend on a variety of factors. So the grower is never sure which crop to sow. “Sometimes, all the farmers go for one crop. It takes the rate of seeds high. On the other hand, it also lowers demand and prices for sale are lower. At the end, we suffer losses,” says Bhat.
While seeds become dear, farmers say that other input costs too are escalating. Manure – bird droppings and cow dung – is not available in large quantities as poultry farms in Kashmir are not abundant. “So we depend more on fertilisers. It increases the input costs,” says Ghulam Nabi Dar, another farmer in nearby Bugam village. “Then we have to contract labour too. Local labour is hardly available and non-Kashmiri labourers charge hefty rates.”
Farmers say that the most difficult stage of vegetable farming is selecting the right variety of seed. “New seeds come into the market. We have to select them on the basis of inputs provided by traders,” says Dar. “Sometimes the seeds give us better yield, but sometimes the crops fail and we suffer irreparable losses.”
“A hybrid variety of garlic is giving us a better yield than earlier. But that is not the case always. Two years ago, we planted a hybrid variety of potato. The crop failed,” says Bhat. “We have to experiment. There is no other choice.”
Farmers complain that JK’s Agriculture Department does not provide them the necessary information about seeds – suitability to climate, fertiliser requirements and number of plants per hectare.
The department, however, refutes the allegation. Agriculture Extension Officer Chadoora, Ramesh Koul says that farmers’ cooperation is central to introduction of new varieties of seeds. He finds it lacking.
“We introduce new varieties of seed developed by SKUAST (Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology). But farmers are reluctant to spare a major portion of land for testing. We have to start from very small portions. Thus the process of introducing new seed varieties among all the growers takes a lot of time,” says Koul.
Koul says that farmers did not earlier accept the use of fertilisers as well.
Growers’ concerns stretch beyond the lack of technical input from Agriculture Department. They say that traders and middle men take away a major share of their income.
“Traders pay us little money when they procure our crop from the farms. In vegetable markets in Srinagar and beyond, the rates are much higher,” says Bhat.
Though farmers have now begun to transport their produce individually to markets beyond Srinagar, there is still a handicap in this process.
“Crops like potato have a longer life. So we wait till we reap the entire crop and take it to Jammu and Ladakh,” says Abdul Ahad Bhat, a grower who farms seven kanals of land vegetables. “But certain crops like cabbage and cauliflower have little life. The entire crop doesn’t ripe at one time. So we are forced to sell it in parts to traders who accumulate these parts from several farmers into truck loads and transport them to markets.”
The dependence on traders is now leading growers to enter a unique agreement with them. Traders introduce new varieties of seed to farmers on their own risk.
“This year, traders came to us with a new carrot seed. They say the yield is high. To cultivate the seed on each kanal of land, traders pay us 9,000 rupees while they take care of all the input costs from manure to labour,” says Bhat. “It is at least better then risking the entire crop.”
But the arrangements are temporary. Farmers say that unless the agriculture department chips in with locally developed hybrid seeds and provides on spot training to farmers about requirements, the income levels will not rise.
“Paddy is easier to nurture compared to vegetable. So we are thinking of going back to paddy, though the income is less. Risks are lesser in paddy cultivation,” says Bhat. “We had been experiencing a rise in income for some time in vegetable cultivation. But that phase is over.”

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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