A part of the 5,000-year-old Indus Civilisation and tucked between central and southern Punjab, the small district of Pakpattant has many reasons to be proud of, both in spiritual and temporal terms.

It is the last resting place of Fariduddin Ganjshakar, one of the biggest names of the Chisti order of Sufism and a renowned Punjabi poet, commonly referred to as Baba Farid. The city, and later the district, was given its name — Pakpattan, or a clean dockland — by the Sufi saint, whose urs attracts over two million visitors to the town every year.

Carved out of the greater district of Montgomery (Sahiwal), it has one of the most fertile lands in the country that enables it to experiment with all kinds of crops, horticulture, agro-industrial raw materials, livestock, poultry. In the last few years, it has experimented with different crops, multiplied its cropping density, developed a totally new silage industry and became a leading example of agricultural success.

While cotton brings in, at best, Rs50,000 an acre, a cycle of maize, rice and potato brings in Rs90,000, Rs215,000 and Rs200,000 respectively but exhaust the soil in the process

A look at the data of the Punjab Crop Reporting Service reveals its changing cropping diversity and pattern in the last seven years. Out of roughly 600,000 acres sown area, it used to grow wheat on 381,000 acres, maize on 243,000 acres, cotton on 127,000 acres, rice on 134,000 acres and potato on 41,000 acres till 2014. By 2020, cotton dropped to mere 37,000 acres and wheat to 239,000 acres. This roughly 200,000 acre went to expanding maize (298,000 acres), potato (59,820 acres) and rice (210,000 acres), changing the entire pattern.

As shown by the crop reporting data, three crops — maize, rice and potato — now form the agricultural reality of the district. Wheat still has a substantial but receding share. The change was triggered by the cotton failure and farmers search for alternatives. It led to the three crop (maize, rice and potato) cycle, starting from Depalpur district followed in Pakpattant.

Naeem Hotiana, a local farmer, tells the three-crop conversion tale: “as cotton failed due to poor yields and bad economics, farmers’ looked for alternatives. Cotton failure was pathetic; even if the yield is 20 maunds (a progressive estimate) and is sold at Rs4,500 (a rarity as well), a farmer gets Rs90,000. If the expenditure of around Rs40,000 is taken out, he is left with a profit of Rs50,000.

Now compare it with the maize-rice-potato cycle. Sown in January and harvested in April, maize averages (with imported seed) at 100 maunds per acre. Calculated at the current price of Rs1,300 per maund, it fetches farmer Rs130,000. Even after taking expenditure of Rs40,000 out, it rakes a profit of Rs90,000. Rice is a May-August affair, and easily brings 100 maunds per acre, which sells at Rs2,500 per maund — fetching a farmer Rs250,000 per acre. Take investment of roughly Rs35,000 out and the grower still makes Rs215,000 per acre. Potato fits in the October-January window and, on average, yields 100 bags of 120kg. At current rate Rs3,000 per bag, it means Rs300,000 for each acre. Take Rs60,000 expenditure (if farmer has his own seed) or Rs100,000 if he buys it, he is left with Rs240,000 or Rs200,000 profit.”

All experts, however, warn that this kind of exhaustive agriculture is not sustainable, and would soon start damaging the soil permanently. “Realising the danger, Punjab is already pleading for intercropping of legume, especially with maize meant for silage, because it can increase the yield and help recoup soil energies,” Iqrar A Khan, former vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture (Faisalabad) claims.

Maize, rice and potato not only tax the soil heavily but two of them are known water guzzlers as well. Watering them for eight months a year is a recipe for aquifer disaster, which is already dropping at five feet a year and is sounding alarm bells. Luckily, the area is well-educated and so are the farmers; they know the damage, its extent and some of them have started dropping a crop every year to let the soil breathe, he says.

The district also boasts of being among the first few to realise and develop the potential for the silage industry that not only helps sustain local commercial dairy farming but is being exported as well for longer shelf-life.

“From Rs120, its price has increased to Rs180 per maund — a jump of 50 per cent — in the last five years” explains Mr Hotiana — one of the pioneers of silage industry in the district.

Due to massive agricultural activity, the district has developed into a trading hub as well. “Arifwala, a tehsil, is the biggest market of maize, where over 100,000 bags are traded daily for eight months a year. Potato and rice are two other commodities that hardly leave markets empty. Ours is a market that never sleeps”, said Chaudhry Nadeem, a local trader and owner of a seed company.

Since the three-crop cycle requires a massive supply of seeds, a cluster of companies have also developed in the district, which is second to none. Around 17 big companies now own little less than 20,000 acres for seed development; some of them like Jallundher Seed work on massive 4,000 acres, Ittehad Seed 2,800 acres and Shama Seed over 2,000 acres. This explains the might of the local seed industry.

“In fact, silage and livestock have gone hand-in-hand. Pakpattan is perhaps the only district in the Punjab that has a higher buffalo density: 467,000 buffaloes against 380,000 cattle. It is largely because of the most celebrated Nilli breed, which belongs to the district and has historically been bread along banks of the River Sutlej, which runs across the district. It fetches a premium price, sometimes four or five times of other breeds, because of its aesthetic value. It was later crossed with the Ravi breed, which yields more milk, and the result (Nilli Ravi) was expected to be beautiful in looks and yield more milk. Silage industry, which was first developed by neighbouring Depalpur, was quickly adopted by Pakpattant because of the same soil character,” explains Asim Maneka, a local farmer and breeder.

According to the Livestock Department data, the district has around 207 dairy farms with up to 50 animals, 48 with up to 100 animals, four of more than 100 animals and three commercial ones. Small animals (sheep and goats) also number 283,000 in the area. According to the milk industry, 203,347 litres of milk are being collected daily from the district by multinationals and private collectors.

This agricultural health has provided the district base for industrial strength. With 65 cold storages (used mainly for potato), 32 rice mills (in response to expanding rice acreage), eight cotton ginning units, six flour mills and one seed mill (a total of 112), the district sits pretty on good employment chances.

The district has enjoyed phenomenal agricultural success in the last decade but now seems to have entered the phase of diminishing returns.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 21st, 2021

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