Afghani farmers try to stop the rot

By Mustafa Basharat

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 4, 2004 (ENS): Despite last year's abundant harvest, a lack of food storage and processing facilities has created a crisis for Afghanistan's struggling farmers.

With nowhere to store their harvested crops, many farmers have been forced to sell their produce at losses or, in some cases, feed the spoiling crops to animals.

The situation threatens the country's future food supplies. It has already left Afghanistan's re-emerging farming community destitute and seeking help from the government and foreign aid programs.

Agriculture is the largest sector of Afghanistan's economy. About 80 percent of a population of around 25 million people depends on agriculture – either crops or livestock raising – for their livelihood, according to U.S. government statistics. But only about 12 percent of the country's territory is suitable for growing crops – the rest is mountain or desert.

The current crisis was caused by the destruction of food storage facilities, greenhouses and grain silos during the years of conflict. Only one of the nation's 10 grain silos remains operational, supplying bread for the military and university students.

Mohammad Wahid, a farmer in the Kabul region, said he was forced to sell his onions and potatoes cheaply because he had no place to store them. Storage would have allowed him to obtain a higher price for his produce during the winter months when food supplies are low.

"Last year I hoarded 1,000 ser [about 7,000 kilos] of onions in my house in order to sell them, but unfortunately they all decayed and [the smell] caused annoyance to all the people,” Wahid said.

Instead of producing fruit and vegetables to feed his family, Wahid finds himself buying food at markets like other Kabul residents.

Abdul Hakim, who owns an orchard with 300 fruit trees in a village just west of Kabul, said he is forced to sell fruit to Pakistan. Otherwise, apples are often left to spoil because there is nowhere to store them, Hakim said, and Afghanistan now faces a fruit shortage.

The problem is even worse in the provinces where farmers must travel long distances over difficult roads to reach markets.

"Last year I carried my entire grape crop to the Kabul market,” said Gul Rahman, a farmer from the Qalandar Khel region of Parwan province. Qalandar Khel is two hours from the provincial centre Charikar, which in turn is around 50 kilometers (roughly 30 miles) from Kabul. Rahmani said that by the time it took him to bring his crop to Kabul, the grapes had spoiled, forcing him to sell them for such a low price that it didn't even cover the cost of transportation.

Zia Ullah, an apple farmer in the Karizmir district of Kabul province, said, "In spite of our good crop, we were not able to make much money out of it." He complained that he was forced to feed his spoiling fruit to farm animals because he could not transport it to market and lacked adequate storage facilities.

Rabani Haqpal, local country director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, acknowledged that farmers lack access to markets because of difficult mountain roads. He also noted that before the years of violence Kabul had cold-storage units capable of holding 2,000 tons of fruit. But most of these had been destroyed and never rebuilt, he said.

Engineer Shir Mohammad Jamizada, deputy minister of foodstuffs, said a large greenhouse in the Badam Bagh area of Kabul had been a major source of winter vegetables before the decades of conflict, but it has been badly damaged and still awaits repair.

Meanwhile, the nation's wheat farmers, with nowhere else to store their grain, are reportedly resorting to keeping it in their homes waiting for mills to grind it into flour.

Mohammad Tawoos, planning director at the agriculture ministry, said that wheat and rice production in northern Afghanistan was surprisingly good in 2003. But the resulting 40 to 50 percent drop in the price of these grains has only added to the farmers' woes.

The storage problem is also affecting Afghanistan's future harvests. Normally farmers hold back a certain portion of their harvest to be used as seed crops for the next growing season. But the lack of storage means that farmers must now either quickly sell their harvest or watch it spoil, forcing them to purchase seeds for the next year's crop.

Taj Mohammad, a farmer from the village of Qala-e-Sheikhan, west of Kabul, said farmers often sell their potatoes and carrots at the beginning of the year for half of the price they must pay for seed crops. He blamed the government for failing to build adequate storage facilities and said that it must act quickly if the country's farmers are going to survive the current crisis.

Tawoos agreed that the government needs to do more to help farmers with seed stocks, fertilizers, and processing equipment.

The agriculture ministry is working with the U.S. funded Rebuilding Agricultural Markets in Afghanistan Program to revive 100 farmers' markets around the country.

And in Mazar-e-Sharif, a new, privately owned flour mill has just opened, providing another outlet for wheat farmers' crops. The plant has the capacity of processing about 20,000 tons of wheat a year, which its owner said he plans to buy from local farmers.

Meanwhile the Welfare Development Organization (WDO), a local nongovernmental organization, is being helped by the German government’s development agency GTZ to train farmers to turn their fruit into preserves and juice. WDO head Abdul Jalil Sediqi said that the program should reduce the need to import juice from other countries.

"We are happy about this organization because it is providing the chance of preserving the fruits,” said Kamila, a woman who has been farming for 40 years and is now a trainee with the program.

Kamila lives in the village of Qala-e-Muslim, west of Kabul. She and her family of five have struggled with the lack of storage for their fruits and vegetables for years. Now, she and her family hope to open a canning and juice business.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}
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