Grapes turn sour for growers as humidity, disease destroy orchards
Statesman Report
PESHAWAR: In 2013, farmer Muhammad Yar began planting grape orchards in a drastic switch from more traditional crops like wheat and groundnuts. He was hoping to beat long spells of warm and dry weather and to earn enough from the fruit to meet his family’s needs.
The plan paid off and more money started coming in to the Chakwal-based farmer, with a grand annual yield of over 20 tons of grapes.
But since February this year, unbridled rains and humidity have upended Muhammad Yar’s good fortune-- and destroyed four acres of his prize orchards.
“The fruit production is less than 80 percent this year as compared to previous years… which isn’t enough to recover even our expenses,” Yar told Arab News.
The grape yield from Yar’s partially destroyed orchards has dropped to only four tons because the unrelenting humidity has unleashed fungal diseases upon his grapevines.
Farmers in Punjab province’s arid areas, which includes hundreds of acres in Chakwal district, have cultivated grapes for over a decade as the yield of traditional crops decreased significantly due to erratic weather patterns.
But now the weather has become unpredictable once more, with unexpected long spells of rain and humidity resulting in numerous viral and fungal diseases destroying grapes on over 2,000 acres of land in Punjab.
The seasonal fruit is usually cultivated on around 15,000 hectares of land across the country, with more than 75,000 tons of annual production, according to the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
More than 70 percent of the grapes in production in the country are concentrated in southwestern Balochistan province and the rest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces. All varieties of grape seeds planted in Pakistan are imported.
“Unfortunately, all grape varieties cultivated in Pakistan are imported,” Yar said. “Our scientists and researchers should develop the varieties in line with our local environment to prevent diseases.”
The total time from land preparation and sowing of grape plants to yield, takes around 13 months.
Scientists and government officials said they were training grape growers to get maximum fruit through best practices, and to help them sell to the bustling beverage industry for products like fresh juices to increase incomes.
“Early fruiting grapes are planted in Punjab to fulfil local consumption and help farmers increase their annual income, but disease has destroyed the crop on hundreds of acres,” Mohammad Aqeel Feroz, a senior scientist at the Barani [Arid] Agricultural Research Institute in Chakwal, told Arab News.
He added that a majority of food and beverage companies in Pakistan were currently importing grape pulp from Italy for juices, but that negotiations were underway to get them to buy locally.
“80 percent of our grape production is of King’s Ruby which is of excellent quality to fulfil the demands of beverage companies,” Feroz said.
“We are also working on development of local varieties, but this will take time.”
But multinational food and beverage conglomerate Nestle said no infrastructure to process grape pulp existed in Pakistan so far.
“We procure pulps of the fruits including mango, guava, kinnow, etc. from Pakistan since processing capacity exists for these fruits. In case of grapes, it is a work in progress for us, since processing infrastructure does not exist in the country,” Zeeshan Suhail, Public Affairs Manager at Nestle Pakistan, told Arab News.
For now, the government has slapped a ban on the import of all kinds of fruits and vegetables to protect the interests of local farmers, but grapes continue to be bought every year in the millions of metric tons from neighboring Iran and Afghanistan to fulfil local requirements.
“The government should issue import permits to put an end to the illegal grape trade with Iran and monitor the quality of incoming fruits,” Waheed Ahmed, patron-in-chief of the All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters and Importers Association, told Arab News, and urged the government to develop local grape varieties with a demand in other countries.