UP potato farmers’ problem of plenty — a bumper crop but limited places to sell, store

UP potato farmers’ problem of plenty — a bumper crop but limited places to sell, store

Last year's high profits and lower chances of the crop being destroyed by stray cattle drove farmers in UP to grow potatoes over wheat, leading to higher supply than demand.

File photo of a potato field | ANI

File photo of a potato field | ANI

Farrukhabad/Kannauj/Kanpur: Ram Sewak Pal, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Farrukhabad district, owns 25 bighas of land and alternates between cultivating potatoes and wheat through the year. Last year, he earned a significant profit by selling his potato harvest for Rs 1,000 per quintal. Encouraged by his success, he decided to plant potato seeds across all his land during the sowing season in September, with the hope of achieving similar returns.

However, it didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.

Ram Sewak wasn’t alone in thinking this way. In Uttar Pradesh’s potato belt — extending from Agra in the western part of the state to Kanpur in central UP — thousands of farmers sowed potato seed on 6.94 lakh hectares, according to reports, leading to a higher supply than demand. This resulted in mandis getting flooded with potatoes and a slump in prices, forcing farmers to sell them at as low as Rs 200-400 per half a quintal in some districts. 

UP, which ranks first in potato production in India at over 31 per cent, has produced around 242 lakh metric tonnes of potatoes this year, up from the 147 lakh metric tonnes produced last year, according to reports.

Ram Sewak’s woes didn’t end there though. Scanty rainfall and failing to get a good price for his produce during the early harvest time (December 2022) forced him to not harvest his entire crop in the hopes of getting a better price by February-March 2023 (main harvest period).

Here too, Ram Sewak, wasn’t alone. Most farmers did the same and markets got flooded with potatoes, again. The situation became worse and prices continued to fall.

With cold storage facilities filling up in no time and farmers being asked to return with their produce, the government had to step in amid Opposition attacks over the issue.

However, most farmers could not meet the government’s main criterion of the potato’s size (45 mm-85 mm), thus failing to sell potatoes at government centres either.

According to Sudhir Kumar Shukla, a potato exporter, the larger issue was the lack of awareness and best practices among farmers. He also flagged the need for government support in procuring good quality seeds.

“If the government really wants to improve farmers’ lives, it has to train them. The farmers need to be made aware of the best farm practices. If the criterion is being decided by the government, and farmers remain untrained, this situation is bound to prevail,” said Shukla to ThePrint.

“Are we able to provide enough good quality seeds to farmers? The three farm laws were withdrawn but they envisaged combined farming and scientific methods under supervision of experts. This has led to major loss to the country. The government’s thinking was not bad, but now it should think of an alternative,” he said.

Shukla, who accompanied government officials to Nepal for an export order of 15,000 tonnes of potatoes earlier this month, also highlighted the need to boost exports.

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Why farmers chose potato crop

Around 60 kilometres from Farrukhabad, Phool Singh, a farmer from the Tula Purwa village in Kannauj, sits atop his tractor in a queue outside a cold storage facility in the district.

A notice at the gate reads: “All farmer brothers are informed that our storage capacity for this year has been reached”.

Speaking to ThePrint, Phool Singh said that in 2022, he cultivated potatoes in his entire 20-bigha field. “I did not sow wheat this time because it is prone to more harm from chhutta pashu (stray cattle). Potatoes grow under the ground and strays can’t really damage them much. But now too much potato produce has reached cold storages and potatoes are being thrown,” he said.

It is the same story everywhere — Hardoi, Kanpur, Fatehpur and Kannauj — with farmers opting to grow potatoes to avoid their crops from being destroyed by stray cattle.

“I had grown potatoes in 20 bighas and tried to sell my produce of 15 bighas. But farmers are not getting a good rate so I got the rest of the field ploughed with a tractor to destroy the remaining crop. Last year, we got Rs 1,000 per quintal but now, rates are very low,”  said Phool Singh.

Potatoes are being sold at a price of Rs 350-400 per quintal in Kannauj mandis and Phool Singh had to sell a part of his produce for as low as Rs 300 per quintal. He has put his remaining produce in a cold storage facility and hopes to get a better price later.

But cold storage owners in Kannauj and Kanpur’s Bilhaur say they have run out of space and several have had to ask farmers to return.

Awadhesh Kumar Katiyar, owner of a cold storage facility in Bilhaur, told ThePrint, “We have a capacity of 1,25,000 quintals, but it is full and I have had to tell farmers that they should make some other arrangement.”

Similar scenes are being witnessed in facilities across the potato belt, covering districts of Farrukhabad, Hathras, Hapur, Etah, Meerut, Mathura, Kannauj, Firozabad, Etawah, Fatehpur and Kanpur, where farm unions are up in arms against the government and have, in some areas, resorted to burning potato produce.

Cost recovery low

Ram Sarkar Rajput, an arthiya (middleman) with a shop in the Navin Mandi of Farrukhabad, Asia’s largest potato market, says that this year, production in the district which, according to reports, produces maximum potatoes in UP has reached over 13.5 lakh metric tonnes, which is over two lakh metric tonnes more than the previous year.

“Exports to countries like Nepal have stopped and inter-state exports to states such as West Bengal also took a hit due to improved production there. We are, however, supplying to states such as Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. At present, farmers are getting a rate of Rs 300 per quintal, especially for the low quality potatoes. They can recover their cost of production only if they get Rs 500-600 per quintal,” he told ThePrint.

Farmers in Kannauj said they are getting an even lower price.

Families of Radha Krishna Agnihotri and Mohammed Islam, who share four acres of land in Kannauj’s Udharanpur village and grow potatoes in a profit-sharing arrangement, have been involved in potato farming since the 1970s.

They said they have been able to recover only one-third of their total cost of production. “This year, I spent Rs 1,60,000 on potato production in two acres but the selling price has helped me recover only around Rs 62,000 so far — about one-third of my total cost. At present, we are only getting Rs 150-200 for a packet (half quintal). The best of the potatoes are being sold at Rs 200 per packet. We are at a loss,” he said.

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Not meeting govt standards

As photos of potatoes being dumped, of farmers queuing outside cold storage facilities and farmer unions burning potatoes started doing rounds, the state government last week announced that it will purchase potatoes from farmers at a support price of Rs 650 per quintal. However, the move is hardly helping farmers as their produce fails to meet the government standards, resulting in no sale.

“Officials arrived at the government potato purchase centre on 9 March but not a single packet was sold here. This is because no farmer is able to meet the government standards. They say each piece should be between 45 mm-85 mm in size, but no farmer is able to meet this criterion. In future, too, I bet there won’t be a sale at the government centre,” said Rajput.

Divyashu Shukla, mandi inspector of Navin Mandi, Farrukhabad, admits that while three farmers arrived to enquire about the potato sale at the government centre, they failed to meet the criterion and so, were instead trying to sell the potatoes to private traders.

“Many farmers are not aware of the size criterion,” he said.

Govt looks at alternatives

The state government is looking at boosting exports of potatoes to deficit states such as Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Speaking to ThePrint, Agriculture Production Commissioner, Uttar Pradesh, Manoj Kumar Singh said, “We are promoting exports to deficit states and countries and also, potato sale on eNAM for the first time. Under the arrangement, a trader can bid from anywhere in the country and buy potatoes from any mandi. Finally, if none of this works, then procurement at centres will begin,” he said.

According to its website, ‘National Agriculture Market (eNAM) is a pan-India electronic trading portal which networks existing mandis to create a unified national market for agricultural commodities.’

So far, eNAM was being used for horticulture produce, he said.

Asked about the need for making good quality seeds available to the farmers, Singh said, “We are setting up two aeroponic facilities (growing in the air) — one at Hapur and the other at Kushinagar — for potato seed production under technical supervision of Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI). Private companies such as PepsiCo also provide seeds,” he said.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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