Tunnel farming is gaining acceptance among educated farmers as it provides them with an opportunity to grow vegetables in off-season by using less than 40 per cent water and managing required temperatures by capturing heat during winters.
Agricultural experts point out that three main impediments that impact agricultural growth in the country are chronic water shortages, low per acre yield and low value of crops. They said these drawbacks could be overcome by growing high value summer vegetables during winter through tunnel farming.
They claim that by adopting tunnel farming technique farmers can obtain 80,000 kg of cucumber, 30,000 kg green chillies and 30,000 kg of capsicum from one acre. This is 2-2.5 times higher than the average harvests the farmers get for these crops.
The farmer earns from Rs200000 per acre to Rs500000 per acre if he markets the produce in the local market. Since all of those involved in tunnel farming are educated farmers they are now exploring export markets as well where they expect to earn 100 per cent more.
The experts say that the tunnel farming operates on the principle that of creating conditions during winter that are equivalent to those in summers. The vegetables sown in summer are then cultivated in these tunnels during winter. The entire farming area is covered by transparent plastic fixed over D-shaped steel pipes. The entire soil is also covered with black coloured plastic sheet with small holes from where the seeds are sown.
The sunlight during the day passes through transparent plastic sheet and is absorbed by the black sheet spread over the soil. This raises the temperature to desired levels. The plastic sheet on the soil serves three purposes. First it traps heat, second it reduces water loss and third it eliminates growth of weeds as seeds germinate from the holes made in the plastic sheet.
Former President Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mian Shafqat Ali who has closed his steel pipe factory to concentrate on tunnel farming says that Pakistani farmers have adopted a low cost version of tunnel farming that is cost effective compared with foreign models that use electricity as a major input to control temperatures. He said one acre of tunnel of Pakistani version costs Rs300,000 to Rs1.5 million while foreign version may cost almost Rs5 million.
He said it must be borne in mind that the farmers procure quality hybrid seed of reputed brand. Moreover he added the PH of the soil should be adjusted to 7-7.5. The total dissolved solid (TDS) contents should not be more than 600. He said the underground water in most of Punjab is suitable for tunnel farming but the farmers should always check the quality of their water source.
He said another aspect that the farmers should know is that the soil takes some time in adjusting to tunnel farming technique. He said the farmer might get 60pc of the potential yield of the seed in the first year and the productivity potential would be achieved in the third year. The News found that a progressive farmer Mian Shaukat who is currently heading the Punjab Agriculture Marketing Company (PAMCO) has been practicing tunnel farming for the last 10 years. He has 350 acres of tunnel farms. The farmers point out that the income from tunnel farming could double even locally if the role of middleman is eliminated.