Cassava farming on fallow lands: low risks but high returns
Farmers who cultivate cassava on fallow land in Sylhet division are in for a huge success this year with expectations of a bumper yield and good market prices.
The rugged vegetable has a relatively long growth cycle compared to other important crops, taking an average of eight to 10 months.
The weather has been favourable and harvests are due to begin within a couple of days and run till March, according to various farmers.
The roots can be consumed directly or fed to livestock. It can be processed into granulated flour, or high quality cassava flour, a substitute for some of the wheat flour in bread and confectionary, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In Thailand and China, root starch goes into food products, plywood, paper and textiles, and is used as feedstock for production of sweeteners, fructose, alcohol and fuel ethanol. Two recent cassava mutations have starch properties that are highly valued by industry.
The root is not the only useful part of the plant – young cassava leaves make a nutritious vegetable, and plant tops can be fed to cattle, buffaloes, pigs, chickens and silkworms.
With the use of suitable cassava varieties and modern equipment having the highest production efficiency, the industrial yield of starch extraction exceeds 24 per cent, according to the FAO.
Bangladesh's garments, pharmaceuticals and food processing industries annually require about 3.5 lakh tonnes of starch extracted from the root crop, according to officials of the local Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) and Pran-RFL Group.
The demand is growing by about 10 per cent every year.
Around 7,000 tonnes to 8,000 tonnes of cassava starch are manufactured locally while the rest of the demand is met through imports from Thailand, India, Vietnam and other countries.
Farmers cultivated the nutty-flavoured vegetable on 630 acres of land in Sylhet this season and the production target is around 3,000 tonnes this year. It was on 480 acres last year, yielding 1,400 tonnes.
"We are not tense about selling our crops as Pran buys most of it under contract farming," farmer Polit Bhar told this correspondent during a visit to Kulaura upazila in Sylhet's Moulvibazar district.
Bhar went on to say that this year he planted around 8,500 cassava plants on five bighas of land. Each shrub produces about 10 kilogrammes (kg) to 15 kg of the tuber, which is then purchased by Pran for about Tk 7 to Tk 8 per kg.
When cultivating other crops, farmers have to source the capital along with bearing the risk of being unable to market and sell their produce.
But when it comes to cassava, Pran-RFL Group, one of Bangladesh's largest agribusiness, provides farmers with the funds to cultivate the crop, which is then bought back by the company.
So, with little personal investment, a farmer can earn about Tk 20,000 from roughly 2,500 kgs of the vegetable, said Abdus Samad, another cassava farmer in the region.
Abdul Khaleq, a cassava farmer based in Sylhet's Habiganj district, said cassava was a hardy plant that could cope with most extreme weather conditions, making it a low risk investment.
Around 190 maunds to 250 maunds (one maund equals around 37 kgs) of cassava can be produced on one acre of land, he added.
Md Abdul Momin, an agriculture officer of Kulaura upazila, said they advise local farmers on cultivating cassava on fallow land since it saves money and does not require preparing the land for cultivation.
Lutful Bari, deputy director of the DAE office in Moulvibazar, said the profitable crop's cultivation has seen a gradual increase throughout the district.
Kamruzzaman Kamal, marketing director of Pran-RFL Group, told The Daily Star that the company was the first to introduce contract farming for cassava in 2014.
Pran also conducts training programmes and provides financial assistance and farming elements such as seeds and fertilisers at low cost.
Farmers usually have to spend between Tk 25,000 to Tk 30,000 per acre to cultivate cassava.
Pran helps deal with a large chunk of this production cost by providing seeds, a form of advance payment for the harvests, he said.
The cassava plant can play a vital role in developing the country's agricultural sector. At its processing plant in Habiganj Industrial Park in Shaistaganj upazila, Pran processes about 60,000 tonnes of the crop each year.
Pran turns the root into starch, which is mainly used as a raw material for baked goods. However, the material is now also being widely used in the garment and pharmaceutical industries.
Pran aims to procure 30,000 tonnes of cassava from 5,000 acres of land around the country this year.
Last year, the company collected more than 19,000 tonnes from 4,750 acres of land, Kamal said.
The company plans to start collecting cassava from mid-October and harvesting will continue till March 2022, he added.
Pran cultivated cassava, either directly or through contracts, in the Rangamati, Khagrachhari, Habiganj, Moulvibazar, Tangail, Mymensingh, Jamalpur and Cumilla districts this year.
Dilip Kumar Adhikari, additional director of the DAE office in Sylhet, said cassava was a staple food in many African countries.
Cassava is a popular food in tropical regions such as Africa, where it is the third major source of sugar.
"Pran uses cassava to make their various foods and chips and for starch," he added.