Pakistan is a developing country with population well above 180 million, majority of which lives in villages. Agriculture is its mainstay and the main profession of its rural populace which tills lands from dawn to dusk to feed their countrymen. It’s a tradition here that farmers do not sell off their agricultural land, which eventually passes on from generation to generation in inheritance. Quite understandably the size of landholding gets smaller with each transfer making it hard for the farmer to put it to profitable use.
So, what are the choices with farmers owning small chunks of land? Unable to bear the ever-increasing input costs, shall they resign to their fate and settle for minimal gains or wait for a miracle to happen in their lives? And yes, miracles do happen in life. Muhammad Aslam, 48, a resident of Bhawalpur Road, Chak 4-Faiz Multan, foresees a major change in his life in the near future. Once worried about how to make profits from his agricultural land measuring 2.5 acres, he is seeing it turning into proverbial gold mine for him. He expects his income to increase manifold which is nothing less than a miracle for him. Though optimism is very much there, there are practical reasons that support these projections. Let’s see how.
Aslam is enrolled as a trainee in a tunnel farming project launched at Government Pak-German Institute, situated 20 kilometers away from Multan city, on Bahawalpur Road. A retired Pakistan Air Force (PAF) employee, he saw a banner hoisted in his area and fell in love with the whole idea. A keen reader and follower of developments in science and technology, he knew tunnel farming was a promising field. But what he did not know was that one day he will get an opportunity to learn this trade close to his house and that also free of cost.
Tunnel technology has been very helpful in transition from traditional to non traditional farming. The project has been launched in South Punjab, keeping in view the majority of people are illiterate and have very low knowledge regarding modern agriculture techniques. This training has been launched under the Fund for Innovative Training (FIT) programme- a multi-lateral initiative co-funded by the European Union, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany, being implemented in Pakistan by the GIZ.
Profitability is unbelievably high and small farmers can earn from Rs 500,000 to Rs 700,000 per acre, says Zia-ul-Hassan Shad, Project Manager, Government Pak German Institute. This, he says, is the best option for owners of small chunks of lands who can produce off-season vegetables such as cucumber, chilli, gourd etc by creating and maintaining controlled conditions inside the tunnel.
The donors’ money has been used to erect structures, provide hybrid seed, fertilizers and pesticides to trainees, paying fee to a master trainer who comes from Lahore, buying 100 chairs and white boards for classrooms, buying fuel for pick and drop service and son, shares Zia.Looking after plants in tunnel farms is a tedious and demanding process. A little carelessness can destroy the crop. The farmer must know what is the right time to apply fertilizer and in what quantity. He is also supposed to remove weeds in time and spray insecticides in desired quantities.
“The seed used in tunnel farming is hybrid in nature and one must have theoretical and practical knowledge of sowing it. Even more important is the skill required to maintain the desired temperature and moisture inside a tunnel.In short, one cannot master these skills through trial and error method.The trainees are given hands-on training experience and taken on farm visits to provide them with the exposure they need,” says Abdur Raheem, Agriculture Officer and Incharge Tunnel Farming at the institute.
The trainees have visited farms in Mamu Kanjan, Arifwala, Okara, Lodhran and other districts.A good news for them is that many large scale tunnel farms are short of skilled workforce, meaning those who cannot afford to set up tunnel farms after training can try for jobs in the sector, he adds.
Ahmed Bukhsh, 50, is one such trainee who may try for a job at some tunnel farm. He does not own land, even then he has sowed crops on land acquired on contract in partnership with a friend.This isn’t an option for him now as the installation cost in case tunnel farming a bit high
The institute staff has devised ways to cut costs considerably which ultimately benefits the farmers, says Saleem Haider, Incharge Agricultural Training at the institute. For example, he says, the farmers are taught to use bamboo sticks instead of costly metal pipes to erect structures in case they cannot afford to use the latter.Apart from the one-year tunnel farm training, the institute offered a six months course on kitchen farming for women under the same FIT initiative. In total, 50 women were enrolled with the aim of awarding them skills to grow vegetables inside their homes.