Experimenting with winter wheat
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By Ahmad Fraz Khan | 12/25/2017 12:00:00 AM
FTER spending seven decades with spring wheat, Pakistan is now trying to add winter wheat to its list of agriculture produce.

Led by the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), experiments have already been conducted in four areas Gilgit, Skardu, Chitral and Quetta where temperatures support the winter crop, which is sown in November-December and harvest in August-September next year.

Commonly known as winter wheat, it stays in the vegetative phase during the winter (for 30 to 60 days) before resuming growth in early spring and completing its life cycle by August and September.

The year-long crop requires fewer inputs and gives some 20 to 30 per cent more yield than its spring sister. This brings the cost of production down, to the benefit of farmers.

This variety is also sown in Europe; of late, it has also been successfully experimented in even Iran and Turkey.

Pakistan is next in the region. It has already imported seeds from Turkey to sow at some farms in Balochistan and the northern areas.

Apart from giving farmers of cold areas a good fiscal option in their particular agricultural settings, the winter wheat is also used for almost all modern dietary products like pasta, which has a massive market in the country`s urban centres.

This explains the PARC`s concept: diversify into areas where the market leads to.

The major focus of the experiment is the northern areas, where agriculture is restricted to only 1.26pc of the total area.

Of the area under cultivation, 10pc to 20pc goes to wheat but the yield is abysmally low for a number of reasons: susceptibility to diseases (smuts and rusts) and lodging, a lack of research for improved varieties and specific production technology, the traditional farming system, shorter growing season, poor soil texture, and low fertility.

Farming experts say the winter wheat can take care of most of these problemsdue to inherent strength of the seed and longer life cycle. Since 75pc of the cultivated area in the northern areas is a single crop area anyway, the longer life cycle would not hurt farmers there.

If successful, the experiment can takecare of staple needs for these areas and help make them a premium market for the most expensive dietary products.

Wheat experts have always pleaded for such diversification. The spring wheat, as a crop and as a market com-modity, has been facing a number of challenges and is now affecting whole agricultural cycles.

As a crop, the biggest issue is low yields. Even after 70 years since the independence, the country is still stuck at anaverage national yield of 25.70 maunds per acre compared to 60-70 maunds for progressive growers and 100 maunds in the developed world.

Within the available land, Pakistan`s only option is a breakthrough on theyield, which has been elusive so far.

Second pressure on the wheat is a distor1ed domestic market, which deters clearing of old stocks and keep domestic market unstable due to massive stocks that keep piling up because occasional gluts.

Politically driven high support adds another factor of instability in the internal market. According to the calculations of the Punjab government, the cost of production has dropped from Rs1,003 per maund in 2014-15 to Rs874 in 2017-18.

It happened due to various reasons, including subsidies on fertiliser, a reduction in electricity charges for tubewells and a drop in diesel prices owing to international slide in oil prices.

It thus brought per-acre investment from Rs35,369 in 2014-15 when the current support price of Rs1,300 per maund was fixed down to Rs32,695.

But the government is sustaining a support price of Rs1,300 per maund because of compulsions of the election years.

To further rig the wheat market, international prices are now down to $220 a tonne. It translates into around Rs1,040 per 40Kg at arrival on the Karachi port, according to importers` calculations.

In contrast, the Punjab Food Department`s release price is Rs1,300, excluding gunny bags and transportation, which can cost millers an additional Rs50 per maund.

Even open-market costs are less now.

Millers are thus not interested in the official market and departmental releases are minimal.

All attempts at exports have failed even after a subsidy of $115 a tonne.

During the last year, out of the total offer for subsidised export of 800,000 tonnes, less than 280,000 tonnes were exported.

Some millers are facing the National Accountability Bureau for alleged corruption in even these smaller exports.

This leaves stocks piling up and keeping the domestic market unstable.

In this situation, any attempt to introduce new varieties and increase area under cultivation can only be welcomed. •