AFTER potato and maize, the next victim of February rains seems to be mustard crop.
Sown on around 335,000 acres in Punjab, the crop needs lean watering all its life and matures with two major and a minor third watering.
What it seems to have received during is massive spells of water — four heavy showers (up to 88 millimetres in some parts) in one month and each spell spreading over days.
The crop has been specially hurt by the two spells in the last week of last month. Every week had a long and heavy spell of rain which kept the crop under cloud cover and in standing water for better part of the month. This is precisely where farmers fear they would lose on mustard crop.
The rains have increased vegetative growth of the crop, which may hit pod formation. As per farmers’ claim, their crop is already turning pale and would definitely suffer on yield. The claims about final yield loss, however, differ, sometimes wildly.
The crop is assuming importance not only because of its increasing acreage and its possible role in bringing down the edible oil import bill, but also because of its new anatomy, based on better yielding seeds, when compared to other Rabi crops, like wheat. It takes much less water, much less inputs and even less tending to mature. On all three accounts, the crop is emerging as a beneficial option.
But here, one needs to be clear which mustard crop one is talking about. Punjab is now growing two mustard crops, traditional and hybrid. Both differ widely in yield. Its traditional variety does not produce more than eight maunds per acre even in the best of circumstances. Its average, however, mostly remains around six maunds. Historically, these traditional varieties have occupied fields in barani (rain fed) areas and some parts of Multan and Bahawalpur divisions.
But, of late, new hybrid varieties have emerged that produce three to four times more than the traditional one. With these varieties, the economics of the crop is changing when compared with other Rabi competitors. The new seeds’ per acre yield ranges between 25 to 30 maund, which is around national average of per acre wheat production. However, the mustard sells at around Rs2,400 per maund against Rs1150 of wheat. The shift to mustard thus can gain momentum in the years to come.
Punjab needs to find a role in this changing mustard scenario: emerge as a guiding force, leading its farmers to better yields and crops and lessen national burden of edible oil import bill. If farmers are to be believed, all attention of Punjab planners so far is riveted on the traditional varieties, which neither makes commercial nor dietary sense any more.
Punjab’s responsibility increases for two reasons: the ever-rising edible oil import bill and abolition of national Edible Oil Seed Board after the 18th amendment. The edible oil import bill now $2 billion a year. Fortunately, the province has already declared a major part of its barani (rain-fed) chunk Olive Area and launched a project with the help of Italians.
All brasicca crops need special attention: better seed, designated areas, buyback arrangements and regulated and transparent industry. These crops are industrial raw material. Unless all these factors are weaved into a policy, with committed financial resources, it would be hard to bring down the edible oil import bill.