As tourist throng Swat with the arrival of spring, the markets can be seen filled with stalls decorated with fresh, ripe fruits with their sweet smell dominating the air.
“Come one, come all! The enemy of all ailments: red as blood, attractive as hearts and just for Rs100 a kilo. Fight off diabetes at this is limited-time price. Don’t miss this chance, buy while you can as stocks are selling fast!” were the loud slogans of Akbar Ali, a vendor selling strawberries in Mingora Bazaar.
Ali has been in the fruit business for five years now and said strawberries earn him the most money.
“It is sold for Rs300 per kilogram at the start of the season but as supply increases, the price drops down to Rs100. Usually we sell up to 100 kilograms and earn around Rs600 from daily sales.”
According to Ali, most of the demand comes from patients as it is rich in nutrients and helps reduce blood pressure.
Strawberry is cultivated on a large scale across the valley. Apart from the fruit’s production, farmers also make a good deal of money from its runner plants, which are sold for cultivation in other parts of the country.
With favourable climatic conditions, around 80% of strawberry farms are currently being used for runner plantation.
Saeedullah, who has been growing and selling runner plants in Koz Durushkhela for the past 15 years, said it is much more lucrative than growing strawberries.
“We buy these plants from local farmers and sell them to dealers and farmers in Mardan, Charsadda, Lahore and even Sukkur,” he said, adding that an acre of agricultural land can accommodate 80,000 plants which are sold for Rs700,000 to Rs1 million.
In 1992, the agriculture department formally started exploring ways to improve the crop’s yield and has since tested several areas for cultivation. The production, too, has increased manifold.
According to Muhammad Ayaz Khan, a research officer at Swat Agriculture Research Centre, only 10 farmers were growing strawberries in Swat in 1997 but currently over 100 farmers are growing the fruit in the valley.
Ayaz has been researching strawberry cultivation for 20 years and has conducting trials on mulching, spacing and production; he has concluded that the farmers should focus on runner production as Swat is the best-suited place for its cultivation in the entire country.
The insurgency, he added, was a setback for strawberry cultivation as the research centre remained closed during the insurgency, resulting in several varieties of the fruit being lost during the period.
Among the numerous varieties of strawberries in Swat, chandler is the most famous due to its unique characteristics. According to Ayaz, chandler can be cultivated alongside onions, which increases farmers’ income through double cropping.
“With proper management and use of modern technology, the environment can be converted into an opportunity to increase the quantity and quality of production and export the exotic fruit to developed countries,” he added.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2012.
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