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Tunnel farming gains ground

Tunnel farming for vegetables is becoming popular across the country as it boosts per-acre yield, cuts the cost of production and helps in off-season production.

Back in 2005, the ‘fruit and vegetable development project’ of the Punjab government was launched as the first major initiative on tunnel farming. Now thousands of farmers in all provinces are engaged in it. Many of them say it has helped them grow more and better veggies at lower than usual costs, thus boosting their income.

The average per-year production of tomato, cucumber, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip, bitter and bottle gourds, okra and capsicum has increased during FY2010-14, as compared to FY2005-09, according to the officials of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research.

Consolidated data for FY2016 on veggies’ cumulative output is yet to be released. But officials of agriculture departments of Sindh and Punjab confirm a rising trend during the last fiscal year.

Most tunnel farms are spread over 10 to 20 acres of land. But, some tunnel farms cover a larger area in Punjab. In Sindh, too, urban owners of unused land have started leasing it out to individual farmers or farmer-groups interested in tunnel farming.

In Punjab, tunnel farming of vegetables has taken root in Arifwala, Mailsi and Vehari and is fast becoming popular in Faisalabad, Jhang, Multan, Rahim Yar Khan and Sialkot, according to officials of Punjab Agriculture Department.
Some private sector companies have also started playing a key role in promoting tunnel farming. Farmers in Punjab, Sindh and KP are taking advantage of services provided by them

After some incentives offered in the two annual agricultural budgets including the current fiscal year, “tunnel farms have started coming up in other areas as well like in Kasur, Lahore, Nankana Sahib and Sheikhupura,” an official told this writer. At present, tunnel farming is being carried out on 250,000-300,000 acres of land in the province, he added.

In Sindh and KP, too, similar incentives for tunnel farming are being provided.

But the provincial agriculture departments have made no arrangement to collect data on the actual production of vegetables in tunnel farms. Guesstimates by officials put vegetable output in tunnel farms at 2-3pc of the total production of 3.1m tonnes (excluding potatoes).

Some private sector companies have also started playing a key role in promoting tunnel farming. One of them, Four Brothers Farms Ltd, claims that it offers, on turn-key basis, a complete package of erection, maintenance and running of tunnel farms commercially. Farmers in Punjab, Sindh and KP are taking advantage of services provided by such companies.

Though the number of active and large companies in the field of tunnel farming promotion can be counted on one’s fingers, the total number of firms that claim to have expertise in this area is close to 200.

The National Agricultural Research Centre and Ayub Agriculture Research Centre continue to provide technical know-how on tunnel farming to growers across the country.

Farmers say that off-season and higher production of vegetables, economised use of water and more effective pest and weed management are three main features of tunnel farming which together make it feasible. But they point out that unlike in traditional veggies’ farming; tunnel farming requires larger quantities of fertilisers. That is where they need governmental support.

In exceptional cases, per-acre yield of some vegetables particularly tomato, cucumber and capsicum obtained through tunnel farming has been recorded to be three times higher than traditional farming, according to growers of Sindh and Punjab. However, on average, 60-70pc higher than normal yield is a norm, officials say.

But according to farmers, the initial high cost of setting up a tunnel farm may discourage many.

Farmers engaged in tunnel farming say that setting up a medium sized tunnel farm requires a capital cost of Rs1.5-2.0m.

They point out that in Sindh, as opposed to Punjab; farmers prefer low tunnels (i.e. the ones that accommodate low height rows of steel structures covered with polythene sheets).

The cost of running these tunnel farms are stated to be lower than that of the walk-in and high tunnels, the first providing enough space between two series of rows for growers’ movement, and the second housing multi-storey rows of artificial soil beds for veggies.

Senior bankers say they have been lending to owners of tunnel farms, both under a specialised incentive scheme introduced in the last two years and as part of regular operations. “But loaning for setting up such farms might have been slower because it is treated as an agricultural development loan and attracts a different approval criteria,” admits the head of the agriculture division of one of the top five banks.

Officials of the state-run National Bank of Pakistan claim they regularly make loans to farmers and companies for the setting up tunnel farm structures.

Courtesy : Dawn News



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