Song of the farmers as boro begins
As alarm bells began to go off around the world about a looming food crisis, the news soon reached farmer Tarek bin Mahtab of Golai village in Godagari upazila of Rajshahi.
He had planted boro paddy on 7 bighas of land last year. This year he will do so on 10 bighas.
"I also planted mustard for the first time this year. The mustard yield improves on land already used for the purpose," he said.
A diversified basket of crops also fetches a reasonable price, while the rice itself is priced higher than before.
While last year Boro rice was around Tk600 per maund, this year it is fetching highs of Tk1,100 for the same.
Elsewhere, Mokabbar Ali, a farmer in Bhimpur village in Nagaon Sadar, also planted brinjal and other winter vegetables on 4 decimals of land.
"I am planning on growing different vegetables on my land. I am also rearing three pairs of bulls. Other farmers also need to come forward to make Bangladesh self-sufficient in food production."
His focus on Boro – which makes up more than 55% of all rice production in the country – also remains.
Farmers in Bangladesh have always been at the frontlines of the fight to stave off impending hunger.
After a meeting of top economists a year after the country's independence, Cambridge economist Austin Robinson, who joined the conference as an official, described a grim picture in the newborn country. With little resources and a hungry population, he said, "At present Bangladesh is the textbook example of Malthusian stagnation…"
A year later, floods wreaked havoc across the country, ushering in a famine.
But Bangladesh persevered. Its farmers took the fields, sparing no inch of cultivable land.
It's a lesson that the Bangladeshi farmers would use a few decades later when a pandemic hit the world. Food production did not stop.
Now, as the country struggles to deal with myriad problems – recovery from the Russia-Ukraine war crisis, rising energy prices and depleting foreign reserves – the farmers are pushing on with their unique skills.
Mizanur Rahman, a farmer in Bogura's Dupchanchia, is busy tending to his crops – rice, corn, vegetables, mustard, and potatoes.
He has 50 bighas of farm land. Higher prices for farm products encouraged him to go for a bigger produce basket.
"The price of various agricultural products increase each year. As a result, it becomes difficult to meet agricultural and household expenses by growing one type of crop," he explains.
Mizanur, like millions of others, is not only looking for a payday. Small farmers, who make up the bulk of the agricultural sector, are utilising their lands to the fullest, focusing on feeding families.
Many recall how during Covid-19 their famished city-based families had to leave for villages. An empty pantry is no longer an option.
More people have also shown interest in farming, championing food security.
Easy agri loans, more lands in use
Government agricultural loans are on easier terms too. Fallow lands have been in use as well.
Boro rice seedlings are planted once the mustard is harvested. Farmers are cultivating Boro on more land this time.
Boro rice is being cultivated on 1,86,650 hectares of land in Bogura in the country's northern area which contributes the most to food security this season.
Alongside rice, mustard cultivation has also increased significantly this year – 37,575 hectares of land are being cultivated compared to 27,617 hectares last year.
Enamul Haque, additional deputy director (Crops) of the Department of Agricultural Extension in Bogura, says the focus is on increased production.
Mustard cultivation is up to meet the shortfall in edible oil. He said Bogura has 687 hectares of cultivable fallow land. Of this, 297 hectares have been cultivated in the last six months.
"There will be no cultivable fallow land left unused in the district within the next six months. Farmers will do more if loans are increased further."
Director General of the Department of Agricultural Extension Badal Chandra Biswas said good Boro production depends on the adequate supply of inputs like fertilisers, good seeds, diesel, and electricity.
"A steady supply of these materials is being arranged and the department has enough fertiliser stock until next June. They are using more productive seed varieties this year and cultivating hybrid seeds in 14 lakh hectares, up from 13 lakh hectares last year. Discussions are ongoing with the Ministry of Power to ensure uninterrupted power and fuel supply during the irrigation season, and steps are being taken to reduce wastage. Work is also underway to bring fallow land under cultivation."
The target for this year's Boro season is 49,77,600 hectares, an increase from last year's 48,72,000 hectares. The goal for rice production is 2.15 crore tonnes, up from last year's 2.02 crore tonnes. To achieve these targets, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agricultural Extension provide farmers with the necessary resources to bring fallow land under cultivation.
No land left behind
Godagari Upazila Agriculture Officer Maryam Ahmed said there are 55,000 farmers in Godagari Upazila, and all uncultivated land has been brought under cultivation as per Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's instructions.
Elsewhere, Mozdar Hossain, deputy director of the Directorate of Agricultural Extension in Rajshahi, said crops are produced three to six times a year in the district, ensuring a grain surplus and no possibility of food shortage.
Agricultural loans are gradually given to farmers from banks, and agriculture officers visit farming families to motivate them to use their lands.
Farmers are also focused on increasing food production due to rising food prices and growing demand.
Several big chars on the Meghna River are also being cultivated for the first time.
In Lakshmipur district, 500 hectares of uncultivated land in educational institutions have been cultivated with vegetables this year.
But money is a concern.
Anwar Farooq, former secretary Ministry of Agriculture, told The Business Standard that due to the Russia-Ukraine war right after the Covid-19 pandemic, food production was in a crisis.
Costs of diesel, fertiliser, labour, electricity and seeds also saw rapid rise.
"This year, the production cost of paddy is increasing by Tk1,200-1,300 per bigha, or even more in some cases. If farmers don't not get an increased price of rice despite spending more, they will be hurt. There has to be plans so the farmers get fair prices," he said.
Farmers also need credit.
The central bank announced a Tk5,000 crore refinancing scheme at 4% interest on November 17 for farm loans ahead of the Boro season.
But is it helping?
Cash is short
Shahinur Islam, regional manager of Bogura (North) Agricultural Development Bank, says agricultural loans of Tk302 crore were disbursed this year compared to Tk220 crore last year.
The agricultural loan recovery is also good, he added.
Earlier, 150,000 hectares of land were cultivated in Lakshmipur. But several thousand hectares still lie fallow, primarily because of a lack of funds.
Zakir Hossain, a member of the District Loan Distribution Committee (Lakshmipur) and the district agriculture officer, said a meeting was held under the leadership of the deputy commissioner this week. It has been decided that the deputy commissioner would organise a fair in coordination with various public and private banks to provide easy loans to farmers.
Wahida Akter, secretary, the Ministry of Agriculture, told TBS, "The distribution of agricultural credit has undergone a slight change. What was once unavailable is now becoming more accessible. We have requested the Bangladesh Bank to increase disbursement and asked DCs across the country to monitor it. As a result, DCs in districts such as Narsingdi and Sirajganj are holding loan fairs for farmers. The Bangladesh Bank, which has not reached its target for agricultural loan distribution, is coordinating with organisations that have a higher distribution rate."
Agricultural economist Dr Jahangir Alam Khan stated that the issue of farmers accessing loans is long-standing and has yet to be resolved. Additionally, production costs have risen.
"To alleviate this, diesel and electricity prices at the farmer level should be lowered, or, if that is not possible, cash assistance should be provided to reduce costs, particularly now that the Boro season has begun," he said.
The wait for water
Bajlur Rashid, a Sarishabari Upazila farmer in Jamalpur, uses an electric irrigation pump to water his land and that of his neighbours as the Boro crop season has started.
Despite facing difficulties during the day due to frequent power cuts, he can run the pump at night after 10:00pm when electricity is available.
He said the water demand was currently low due to the damp soil, but in a few weeks he would need to water more often.
"If the night-time power cuts become more frequent, it will hurt the irrigation process," he said.
According to the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation, over 15 lakh diesel and electric irrigation pumps are in use for the Boro season. Out of these, 465,459 are electric.
The Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources reports that the irrigation season will run from February to May 31. The peak electricity demand during the last irrigation season was 14,097MW and is estimated to reach 15,500MW this season.
In a recent meeting of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, it was decided to prioritise irrigation during the peak hours from 11PM to 7AM.
To ensure a steady electricity supply, the ministry has instructed power generation plants to maintain fuel oil reserves for at least two months.
The supply of gas, furnace oil, and diesel has been ordered to increase to improve power generation.
A monitoring committee has been established to oversee the uninterrupted power supply to irrigation pumps, and the activities of existing committees will be strengthened.
The government has provided Tk170 crore incentives to farmers to boost Boro production. This includes providing 27 lakh farmers with fertilisers and seeds to cultivate one bigha of land.
Our correspondents Awal Sheikh, Abdul Kader, Khorshed Alam, Bulbul Habib and Sana ullah Sanu contributed to this report.