Raja Muhammad Amjad
Village Hill, Beer Valley, District Haripur
Tunnel farming involves constructing low tunnels like Greenhouses i.e. hut-like structures swathed in plastic that serve as cocoons for growing small vegetables. The idea of tunnel farming is to shield the crops from the elements and trap the heat of the sun, extending the growing season and increasing production. It is fast gaining acceptance among farmers as it provides them with an opportunity to save the input resources by using less than 40 percent water, fertilizer and other resources under controlled conditions. Through tunnel farming, it is possible to overcome the three main impediments that impact agricultural growth: chronic water shortages, low yield per acre and low value of crop production (Zarai Beithak).
All his life Raja Muhammad Amjad has practiced conventional farming, growing peaches and mangoes on his orchards in Village Hill in Beer Valley in District Haripur. Being progressive for him meant diversifying just a little bit and keeping honey bees as well. So when Mian Majeed and Javed Khan (RSPs Cluster Tunnel Farming, NMA) approached him with unique concepts such as tunnel farming and intercropping, Raja Amjad was certainly apprehensive. But he decided to give it a shot once he attended a demonstration in which Javed provided training, vegetable seeds and material, “I learnt how to sow early, protect the crop from frost and get early vegetables. I also learnt that some of the fruits require mini tunnels to grow better as in the initial stage the plants are weak and are transplanted into the new place so like humans it also takes time to adjust to the surroundings”.
Although low tunnels are less expensive as compared to the high tunnels. Usually cucumbers, melons, watermelons, bitter gourds, squashes, snake gourds and strawberries etc. can be grown under low tunnels. Starting off his experiments with peach few years back, Raja Amjad under the guidance of Majeed and Javed saw it ripen to successful fruiting. “That is what inspired us to be more adventurous”, Majeed and Javed decided to introduce Amjad to strawberry growing and that too by utilising the low tunnel farming technique. The experiment turned into a major success as they discovered the climate of Beer suited to strawberry growing. Amjad explains it in the number of offshoots: In Swat one plant gives 75 offshoots whereas here in Beer it gives off nearly 100.
For the demonstration Amjad cultivated strawberry on a very small area but the fruit grew well. From the same small patch he got enough fruit which was consumed not only by the family but also shared with friends and relatives. According to him “I had tasted strawberry before but the taste of this strawberry was many times better, my children just loved it. As it prefers growing under the shade better so I planted the runners under the peach trees”. He grows strawberry in January and according to his estimates, the production is enough to market as well as take the surplus kilo or two home daily.
Growing this fruit in Beer has another advantage: that here the production starts when the strawberry season is nearly ending in the rest of the areas. Amjad also grows vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum, Indian squash/round melon, and green chilies in his orchard, and this year around he used low tunnel farming to grow it all. “And they grew very well”, says Amjad, “For the whole season I did not need to buy these vegetables from the market. It was enough to treat my family with as well as to give away as presents. I got tomatoes when the market prices were soaring due to it being offseason in February (PKR 110 per Kg), so it saved me a lot of money”. Growing off-season crops through low tunnel farming was new to Raja Amjad, but harvesting tomatoes in January was certainly a delight he wants to sustain.
Amjad is also very excited about another innovative (yet centuries old) practice he has been introduced to: the use of compost and other natural materials instead of chemical fertilizers. He used it for growing nearly all of the vegetables in his tunnels, for some of the fruit orchards and partly for growing wheat in his fields as well.
Though Amjad has been introduced to low tunnel farming, off season cropping and composting for the first time, he has also casually become a manager on his own farm. About 12 women and 6 men are working with Amjad and this is their sole source of livelihood. Gradually and ultimately the whole group will have to sort out how to be more innovative in their marketing techniques as their farm’s future depends on it.
Amjad gushes forth “I have been feeling very progressive in my farming methodology, so this year I decided to avoid artificial fertilizers/pesticides on my fruit and crops. Compost was not readily available, so I bartered with the people who were working on compost making. I took some compost from them and in return I gave some of my vegetables and strawberries to taste. My total land is 100 kanal out of which 50 Kanal is cultivable. This year I used natural fertilizer on 35 Kanal whereas on the rest I used artificial fertilizer. For wheat I used a mixture of compost and urea. Next time I am planning to prepare my own compost and bring more area under natural farming with less pesticides”. But Amjad is also realistic, bringing the whole land immediately under organic farming is not possible, it has to be done gradually and with more knowledge under one’s belt.
“Due to the use of natural fertilizer this time the taste of wheat is also different, the loaf we make is soft and sweet as compared to the hard loaf we would get from using fertilizers”. Same is the comparison Amjad makes with his previous crops of peaches and melons sprayed with pesticides. His fruit loss is much less, the produce tastes delicious and as the poison is gone from the spraying, food being consumed is definitely safe.
Raja Amjad wants to make his own compost next year for which he shows an interest in receiving training. Ambitiously progressive he also wants to learn proper packaging and marketing of product because he aims to apply for an “organic grower” certificate after 3-4 years (once his land is completely devoid of chemicals) and he plans to grow strawberry on much bigger plot of land next year!
Crop diversification has opened new avenues for the innovative farmer. This time Amjad tested low tunnel farming and intercropping on his farm with a conventional tinge; he avoided the excessive use of chemicals. Strawberry variety introduced for the first time thrived in the climatic conditions of Beer Valley. The success has taken him a step ahead as he is planning to achieve the status of organic grower in the next 3-4 years.
 Tunnel farming can be used to raise the temperature and protect from wind and heavy rainfall, in Pakistan, it is mostly used to raise the temperature during the cold, winter season. This is the time where fresh produce is either too difficult or too expensive to get, resulting in malnutrition particularly in women and children.