The people of Khulna had not even considered watermelon farming just 10 or 12 years ago, when thousands of acres of land would remain uncultivated after the aman paddy season.
Farmers in the district’s Dacope and Dumuria upazila were engaged in shrimp farming while lands in Batiaghata upazila was used for sesame cultivation.
But things have changed in recent years as numerous farmers across the region have started cultivating watermelon in order to reap quick returns.
Around 27,000 acres of land in Bangladesh was used to cultivate watermelon in fiscal 2019-20, when 188,000 tonnes of the summer fruit were produced, according to data from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
Farmers in Khulna, particularly the sandy coastal areas, were encouraged by last year’s results and began to cultivate watermelon on larger plots of land as it brought more profit than other traditional crops, including paddy and sesame.
And so, 7,512 hectares of land in nine upazilas under the district was brought under watermelon cultivation this year, up from 3,085 hectares the previous year, according to the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) office in Khulna.
On April 1, this correspondent visited a number of villages in the region, where hundred of watermelon growers were busy nursing saplings.
Bimal Krishna Roy of Pankhali village under Chalna municipality cultivated watermelon on fallow land for the first time this year. He told The Daily Star that such lands would have been left unutilised in other years at such times.
“This is the first time that we are trying to make watermelon cultivation profitable. Most farmers are new watermelon growers,” Roy said.
Last year, five farmers in the area cultivated watermelon on five bighas of land. This year though, watermelons have been planted across 150 acres of land in the same region, he added.
Pankaj Kumar Gain, another farmer of the area, said that when the aman season would come to an end, much of the land used to remain uncultivated.
Only a few people planted watermelons here last year but they benefitted immensely. Seeing their success, more than 100 watermelon growers came up this year.
“There is so much interest in watermelon cultivation since it requires less investment and labour while remaining more profitable than other crops,” Gain added.
While speaking to local watermelon growers, it was learnt that the watermelon cultivation season usually begins between December 15 and January 15. However, most of the lands in the district were muddy at the time this year and so, farmers started cultivating watermelon 50 days later than usual.
Rehena Begum, a seasonal worker from Katianangla village of Batiaghata, told The Daily Star that she is now busy planting seeds, watering seedlings and tending to other farm-related activities.
She earns about Tk 400 per day as a farmhand for watermelon cultivation. In other years, she would spend much of this time sitting idle.
However, the business is not all easy going as many farmers are now facing a shortage of water for irrigation, said Aroni Mondal, another farmer of Katianangla village.
“All our waterbodies have dried up while hand pump tube-wells are not functioning for low water levels,” he added.
During the ongoing harvesting season, traders from different areas of the country are coming to collect watermelon from fields in the district.
According to the DAE, Khulna is the biggest watermelon producer among other districts.
Last year, 120,000 tonnes of watermelon were grown on 3,085 hectares of land in the region with a market value of more than Tk 250 crore.
This year though, watermelon is being planted on about 7,512hectares of land.
Around 70 per cent of the region’s total watermelon production comes from Dacope upazila, where more than 12,000 people are involved in the cultivation of this crop on 3,085 hectares of land.
Meanwhile farmers have started cultivating watermelon on fallow lands in the Kamarkhola and Sutorkhali unions for the first time this year.
“The local farmers were encouraged to produce watermelon as it is more profitable than paddy,” said Mehedi Hasan, the agriculture officer of Dacope upazila.
Similarly, Dumuria upazila’s agriculture officer, Md Mosaddek Hossain, said watermelon fields could be seen across many villages, including Jhaltala, Sharafpur and Bahir Akra.
Farmers have urged the government to set up cold storages in the area to help preserve their produce for sale year-round.
They also asked for steps to be taken to export the delicious fruit to ensure higher prices.
Hafizur Rahman, deputy director of the DAE, told The Daily Star that the farmers made huge profits from watermelon last year.
Many monoculture fields are being diversified for the first time in the district and if the weather is favourable, production will be much better.
“But if the marketing system is not improved, farmers will face loss,” Rahman said.
Besides, production will improve if more irrigation facilities are introduced,” he added.