LONG queues of trucks and tractor-trolleys loaded with sugar-beet can be seen these days waiting for their turn to unload the commodity at the Premier Sugar Mills in Mardan.
Around 350 trucks/trolleys loaded with beet arrive daily at the mill and beet in 250-260 of them is crushed in 24 hours, said Masud Khan, the mill manager.
“Crushing which had started on May 21 will be wrapped up in a couple of days with the supply of beet coming to an end. Another mill in Dera Ismail Khan, where crushing had started in April-end, has already stopped crushing,” he said.
Several farmers complained that while ordinary farmers had to wait for 48 hours for their turn to unload their yield, those with connections unload their trolleys without any wait.
Farmers also complained that the weight of their beet-trolleys was not mentioned in the indents issued by the mill. They showed their receipts to substantiate their claims.
“In the pre-sowing period, mill agents urge growers to cultivate beet. They offer seed, fertiliser, insecticides etc., on deferred payment and promise good rate and five per cent cut at the time of delivery. But afterwards they are subjected to inordinate delay in weighing with mostly 20 per cent cut in weight on the pretext of clay/grass etc., and offer an unattractive price. While the mill has a large area, the growers are made to stay on roadside exposed to insects, mosquitoes in severe weather conditions,” a farmer said.
Mr Khan refuted the allegations claiming that everything was done on merit. He said beet price was increased from Rs120 per 40kg last year to Rs145 this season.
No official figures were available on sugar-beet acreage and yield in KP. Mr Khan said the exact quantity brought to the mills would be known after the crushing was over.
But, according to a source, around 90,000 tons sugar-beet is crushed at the Mardan mill and more or less the same quantity at DIK mill. Farmers, however, say beet acreage has decreased considerably in recent times.
“Not long ago, sugar-beet crushing would continue for almost two and a half months but of late it finishes in a month. While a few years ago, sugar-mills in Khazana, Charsadda and Takht Bhai also crushed beet, now only Mardan sugar-mill crushes it. Once an important cash crop in KP, sugar-beet has lost its importance to other crops for lack of incentives,” said a farmer from Mardan.
Hakim Shah, another farmer, said while high per acre cost and low returns had left little room for farmers to continue sowing beet, farmers nevertheless are compelled to go for it.
“The cost of production for beet is around Rs25,000 per acre against Rs1,000-15,000 for wheat but farmers cultivate beet for badly needed cash as it matures soon and is instantly sold to mills to get money needed to repay loans taken for buying farm inputs. Again, sugar-beet is used as vegetable and its pulp as animal fodder in KP,” said Shah.
“A beet grower has to forego wheat, maize and tobacco crops for beet production. But with application of good seeds and hard-work, he can get good compensation. A beet farmer can get a per acre yield of around 600 maunds or 24 tons which can fetch him around Rs90,000 at the current mills rate. But of late, for lack of water, substandard seeds and some dieses, beet output has declined considerably making it less competitive for farmers.
The government should waive duties and taxes on sugar made from sugar-beet. Mills would then offer good prices to farmers.
Increase in acreage and per hectare yield would result in more sugar yield, increase in farmers’ income and saving jobs for thousands in mills,” said a farmer.
Mr Khan said his mill provided quality hybrid beet seed along with fertiliser, insecticides, weedicides etc., to around 3000 farmers on deferred payment and their cost would be deducted from their payment.
However, he said beet has a higher per kg cost of production than sugarcane for non-availability of bagasse in case of the former. “In case of cane, bagasse recovers the fuel cost. Our fuel cost is around Rs3.5mn per day for beet crushing. If the market price is around Rs60-65, it would be economical for us, otherwise the current market price of Rs55/kg, sugar production is unaffordable for us,” he said.
But according to a farmer, two trolleys load of beet produces a trolley load of pulp and the mill earns quite a lot of money by selling the beet pulp at Rs13,000/per trolley to farmers.
Sugar-millers don’t want to invest in sugar-beet processing plants for lack of confidence in the crop, high cost of production and lack of expertise and technology.
A sugar-beet development policy needs to be devised with incentives like duty-free import of new and secondhand sugar-beet plants, production and supply of quality beet-seeds, easy access to soft loans, tax exemptions and if possible, crop insurance for farmers and millers to build their confidence in the economic viability of the crop.
Around one-third of the 130 million tones of sugar production globally are made from sugar-beet but it accounts for one per cent of the total sugar yield in Pakistan.