Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Strawberry flavours export dream

View of a strawberry garden in Rajshahi.Photo: STAR

The Quantum Foundation authorities in Rajshahi bought over 1,000 strawberry plants for Tk 20,000 a month ago. They spent a further Tk 13,000 cultivating a fallow eight decimal pieces of land in Shitlai Kazipur area. They are now waiting to cash nearly Tk 2 lakh, six times the amount they invested, by selling 250kg of the lip-smacking fruit, in just 10 days.

“Strawberry cultivation is relatively new in the country, but it is not difficult. It spins money," said Muzahidul Islam Zahid, an official of the foundation.

"For the first time I have cultivated the fruit."

Major Hafizur Rahman Mollah, deputy inspector general of prisons for the Rajshahi division, cultivated some 2,500 strawberry plants at the Rajshahi Central Jail property, six months ago.

The jail authorities have spent over Tk 50,000 on the cultivation and now sell 1,000 saplings for Tk 70,000. Also, they are set to sell around 600kg of the fruit at an expected Tk 4.20 lakh.

“Attracted by the economic viability of the fruit, I made necessary arrangements on the jail premises, so that jail inmates can learn the tricks of the trade and adopt them later in their lives,” Major Hafiz told The Daily Star.

M Shahidullah, a local agent of Holcim Ltd, has also cultivated strawberries recently. Strawberries are also being farmed by at least 25 other individuals in Rajshahi -- for the first time this season.

By cultivating 1.5 tonnes of strawberries on a leased plot at Rajshahi University, botany teacher Dr M Manzur Hossain is expected to sell 10 tonnes of strawberries, worth around Tk 70 lakh, by March.

Strawberry farming is already in motion in 30 districts in the country. With the average price of a kilogram of the fruit standing at Tk 700, the commercially viable fruit presents great export potentials and ushers in economic prospects for those who wish to get high and fast returns from limited land resources, according to pioneers in the field.

Originating in the US, the crop is usually grown in Europe and Australia. It gained popularity in parts of Japan and tropical India. Each year, a global production of about 30 lakh tonnes of strawberries on two lakh hectares of land was recorded in the FAOSTAT Database.

The country has demand for 50 tonnes of strawberries per season, which local traders import from different countries including the US, Thailand and Australia. Strawberries are usually eaten raw or used in preparing ice creams, jams, jellies, pickles, chocolates, biscuits, cakes and milk shakes.

The strawberry, a nutritious and delicious foreign fruit, is now adapted to the Bangladeshi climate. It was registered with the National Seed Board recently, following its successful experimental cultivation at Rajshahi and the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute in Joydevpur, said Dr Shafikul Islam, senior scientific officer of Rajshahi Fruit Research Centre.

The government experiments started in 2006 and three years later, Manzur developed several new varieties adapted to the local climate. Another horticulturist, Quamruzzaman of Natore, experimented with the fruits' field results and successfully took it to market.

Many visitors from different parts of the country are now thronging to their strawberry fields. Over 150 people from 30 districts started cultivating the fruit. The Bangladesh Strawberry Association (BAS) was formed with Manzur as its chairman, to fuel the growth of the cultivation.

Strawberry cultivation was successful in the hilly Matiranga Army Zone in Cox's Bazar last year. This year, many fresh initiatives were taken to develop the trade in Panchagarh, Dinajpur, Tangail, Rangpur, Kurigram, Mymensingh, Noakhali, Laxmipur, Jessore, Magura, Faridpur, Madaripur and many areas around Dhaka.

In the early 1990s, Dr Manzur was in Japan, pursuing his PhD, when Quamruzzaman joined him in a one-year training session. They together planned the cultivation of the fruit in the country.

Returning home in 1996, Manzur brought along eight varieties of saplings and Quamruzzaman collected six varieties from Japan and America. But none of them sustained.

A breakthrough occurred when Manzur developed some new varieties through tissue cultures at his Botany department's Plant Breeding and Gene Engineering Laboratory, while Quamruzzaman did the same in Natore.

In 2003, after five years of research, three varieties yielded encouraging results. Out of the three, the 'RU-3' and 'Modern-3' variety proved to be very impressive in all aspects of size, taste, and flavour, with each fruit weighing from 20 to 25 grams. At present, the methods are now more developed, following successful cultivation over the last five years.

Strawberry cultivation is no difficult from growing potatoes or brinjals. Saplings are sown into prepared beds of matted rows in November and December. Pioneers also inform that organic fertiliser is best for the fruit.

Strawberry plants begin to flower within a month of plantation and fruits can be collected till March. Saplings can be collected from nurseries run by Dr Manzur and Quamruzzaman in Natore. Different NGOs are also producing strawberry saplings.

Each plant bears around 250 to 300 grams of fruits and some 6000 plants can be grown on a bigha of land, they say. A farmer can spend Tk 20,000 to yield 2000 kg fruit on a bigha of land. “Even if strawberries sell at Tk 100 a kg, a farmer can easily earn Tk 2 lakh,” said Manzur.

“I experimented at first by selling 35 kg of strawberries at Tk 300 a kg in 2006. In 2007, he sold 87 kg at Tk 550 per kg, gradually increasing the business in this manner,” Manzur said. This year he expects 1.5 tonnes of strawberries from some 6000 plants.

With great export potential, the sweet and attractive fruit will open new horizons for farmers, he told The Daily Star.

Local fruit importers and foreigners, who visited Manzur's strawberry field, comment that the produce was better in size, colour and taste than those found in many other countries.

Quamruzzaman hopes some 8,000 strawberry plants in his nursery will yield more than two tonnes of produce. He even sold good quality strawberries at Tk 2,000 per kg in Dhaka last year.

“I recently planted two new varieties from America Camarosa and Festival. Each fruit of the export quality varieties would weigh about 50 grams,” he says. Other strawberry varieties usually weigh around 25 grams.

However, strawberry cultivation is still lacking government initiatives, which resists expansion, although the trade was registered in the country last year.

“The fruit will no doubt be a profitable crop for farmers. If it is grown on a large scale, the highly nutritious fruit will come within the reach of the common people. There will be no need for imports,” said Manzur.

“Once it is popularised, the fruit can play a role in alleviating poverty and help overcome problems associated with malnourishment,” said Quamruzzaman.

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