Why citrus production is not living up to its potential

Nothing epitomises winter in Punjab as much as peeling, quartering and savouring a Kinnow – a hybrid form of orange similar to a tangerine, but with a distinctly Pakistani kick to its sweetness – nectar racing down your arm beneath the cold December sun.

And no place is as emblematic in the Kinnow’s history as Bhalwal, a tehsil in Sargodha that is the heart of citrus fruit production in Pakistan with its nitrogen-rich soil and frosty temperatures.

In Bhalwal, rows upon rows of citrus orchards form a labyrinth that snakes its way to the home of the farmer who owns it. One such home is Ellahi Dad Noon’s ancestral residence, built by his father in 1920. The nostalgia of a bygone era is tangible here. Known as ED Noon, he spent a decade serving in the army, and many years afterwards running a textile mill in Lahore. He lives a semi-retired life in Bhalwal, farming alfalfa, a plant that is cut, dried and sold to dairy farms as fodder.

He used to be a citrus farmer. The earnings went from high to low over the span of a generation, till they were so meagre that he quit.

“You are selling to a middleman who takes his cut and sells [the fruit] to grading factories,” he says. At a grading factory, the fruit is assessed, qualified, cleaned and sorted for export. “They take their cut too. The farmers are left with minimal returns.”

An installation celebrates the Kinnow on the way to Bhalwal
An installation celebrates the Kinnow on the way to Bhalwal

His wife Tehmina interjects, “Grading factories are now a cartel. They announce the [citrus] prices for each season.” The reason, according to her, is that local as well as international buyers want graded fruit. “The farmers have become subservient to this industry.”

Rana Mohamad Afzal, a farmer who owns 10 acres of land along the road that links Bhalwal with the nearby tehsil of Bhera, says he may quit citrus farming any day. A dozen or so fruit pickers listen on as they fill sacks with pre-Kinnow ‘fruiters’. Their wages are approximately 500 rupees a day. One of them, Nadir, is only six-years-old. Everyone refers to him as bacha — a child.

Many citrus farmers have already sold their land to real estate developers for building housing units and marriage halls. Many more acres have been leased to the Chinese, ED Noon says. They are acquiring vast tracts of land in Sargodha for rice production, he claims.

Tools used by fruit pickers in harvesting *Kinnows*
Tools used by fruit pickers in harvesting Kinnows

ED Noon’s relative, Zia Noon, owns one of the approximately 250 grading factories operating in Bhalwal. His 45-year-old son, Faisal, lives in Toronto half the year but returns to Noon Orchards, his family’s 300-acre plantation in Atabad village in Bhalwal, from November to March to oversee the operations of the factory during Kinnow season. One of his cousins, who is a citrus grower in the area, rejects the claim that grading factories exploit farmers. “Honestly, as a farmer I much prefer selling to Noon Orchards rather than to individual [middlemen] because industries offer a better rate and I know I will receive my payment.”

Deeper ploughing and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides have destroyed our land and our climate.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Pakistan is the world’s 10th largest producer of citrus. But we are not as good at exporting our produce as we are at growing it. Local farmers are in agreement over many of the reasons why.

Citrus fruit pickers in Bhalwal
Citrus fruit pickers in Bhalwal

Azam Tatri, 67, who owns a medium-sized orchard in the area and has written a book on citrus farming, says the government has done little to no research on growing and exporting citrus. It also does not share whatever little research it has with farmers, while agricultural subsidies – a norm in other agricultural economies – are minimal. In India, Faisal Noon claims, the government generously supports farmers through such measures as subsidised electricity for tubewells and, in Japan, research has helped citrus trees to fruit till they are 60 or even 70 years old. This, according to ED Noon, is achieved through strategic pruning. Citrus trees in Pakistan dry up after only 20-25 years.

An abandoned tractor stands in front of a processing factory, which remains unoccupied until the *Kinnow* season begins at the end of November
An abandoned tractor stands in front of a processing factory, which remains unoccupied until the Kinnow season begins at the end of November

Saleem Ranjha, 56, a government officer who owns 70 acres of citrus orchards in Wan Miana, a village in Sargodha, points to other problems. “Deeper ploughing and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides have destroyed our land and our climate,” he says. “We should, instead, use organic matter so that we don’t have to import fertilizers.” In order to bring down costs, farmers should also produce their own electricity through solar panels and biogas plants. “We should use that electricity to run tubewells.” The degradation of the land has led to the falling quantity and quality of citrus yeild. Faisal Noon admits that 60 per cent of his produce is wasted in order to meet export requirements.

Sacks of pre-*Kinnow* season ‘fruiters’
Sacks of pre-Kinnow season ‘fruiters’

Ranjha believes that these problems spell trouble for the industry, saying, “We harvest 2.3-2.4 million tonnes of fruit annually, but export only a couple of hundred thousand tonnes. We need to utilise the wastage; we need to make jams, marmalades, juices and other products instead of throwing it away.”

As for climate change, Faisal Noon has witnessed its impact on his Kinnows first-hand. He flips through his iPhone to show a photo of a Kinnow blossom, known for its heady, sweet scent. It is budding at the beginning of winter. “If the weather is warm, plants believe it is spring no matter what time of the year it actually is. Sometimes they drop the fruit prematurely,” he says. “Nature is confused.”

by Sameen Khan

Source Herald, Dawn