As the strawberry season winds up with vendors replacing the bright red fruit on their pushcarts with various summer specials, the farmers of Swat are content with how their produce fared this spring.
Residents of the scenic valley generate most of their income from tourism and agriculture, with hundreds of orchards that grow the country’s best fruits – from apples to peaches. Even though the 2009 military operation and the subsequent year’s devastating floods hit the district’s economy really hard, growers are slowly picking up the pace.
The climate of the district is suitable for strawberries – the succulent spring delight. A local researcher, Dr Muhammad Abdur Rauf told The Express Tribune the production of strawberries in the region began in 1980 on a test basis and was locally called Zamini Thot (ground mulberry).
Terming the fruit’s production an extremely profitable venture, Rauf said, “This is a new fruit and presently its cultivation and marketing is not very popular across the country.”
He informed that strawberries are presently cultivated in the northern areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. “Due to changes in weather patterns, it is now also produced in some parts of Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh as well,” he added.
Rauf said Swat’s nurseries also supply the strawberry plants to other parts of the country, adding the fruit arrives late in the markets of Malakand Division as compared to the province’s plain areas.
The yield, he said, is first sold to local hotels frequented by tourists in the spring season when the snow-capped mountains thaw and the cold weather begins to subside.
However, the sensitive nature of strawberries requires an overhaul of the fruit’s transportation and marketing, the doctor stressed.
He said that 11 kinds of strawberry plants were initially brought from abroad and after testing them locally, the Chandler, Crona and Tifs were found best suited for sale.
Azeem Bacha, a strawberry business owner from Takhtaband, Mingora, said farmers of the district prepare 60 to 70 million plants for supplying it to the other cities of the country.
“This is a profitable business now, with farm owners earning between Rs120 million to Rs130 million annually,” he said, explaining that Swat’s cool temperatures were best for the fruit’s quality production.
Bacha said more than 10,000 tonnes of the fruit are exported by the country every year.
Dr Khalil, another researcher associated with studying strawberries at the Takhtaband Research Centre, said the district’s favourable weather conditions were best suited for strawberries, however, heavy downpours and the winter fog can damage the harvest.
“Any kind of arable land, with the right weather conditions, is good for this fruit,” Khalil said, adding the fruit needs to be plucked around dawn and kept in a cool place to protect it from rotting.
This is why farmers work in haste during the harvest as any unnecessary delay can ruin the entire stock.
Khalil said strawberry season in Swat continues from April till June, with the valley’s annual production topping 1,000 tonnes, adding the district is the lead supplier of the fruit all over the country.
The fruit mostly ripens in March in the plain areas while April and May is the best time to harvest it in the mountainous region if the weather is not inclement, he informed.
Compared to other fruits, strawberries are affordable in the valley with per kilogramme price ranging from Rs70 to Rs100, however, the same amount of fruit is two to three times expensive in other parts of the country.
A fruit shop owner in Peshawar, Nek Mohammad, said he got his supply of strawberries from the Mardan fruit market this season but the best produce definitely comes from Swat.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2014.