When mango farmer Sohel Rana took a 70-bigha piece of land on lease in 2018, the land was barren and too high for rice production.
With rigorous nursing, he prepared the land for mango production by December that year. And for the last two years, this orchard has been in full production.
"Gouromoti, Amrapali, Bari-4 and Banana are the main mango variants in my orchard," said Sohel Rana, the proprietor of Borendra Agra. "These variations commercially make more money than other common variants in the market, and it extends my business window to four months."
"Besides this, I have also been producing foreign variants like Osteen, Glenn, Keitt, Kensington Pride, Miyazaki, etc on a test basis," he said.
Rana brought these variants to test how these mangoes fare in Bangladesh – whether production is good and consistent each year, and how they taste on our land, etc. "We have been testing them for around three years. So far the result is good. They are export-quality mangoes," he added.
Apart from the key mango variants of his orchard, and those he has been testing, Rana also produces Katimon, and Bari-11, the variants that produce mangoes all round the year.
Bangladesh's mango market has traditionally been dominated by Fazli, Haribhanga, Langra, Himsagar, Khirsapat, etc. The farmers of Naogaon broke into the market with Amrapali and are now taking over both the local and export market with newer variants like Gouromoti, Bari-4, Banana mango, etc.
This exponentially growing market produced 316,795 metric tons of mangoes in 2019 on 18,665 hectares of land, 297,300 metric tons in 2020 on 24,775 hectares of land, and 3,48,995 metric tons in 2021 on 25,850 hectares of land, said Monjure Maula, the acting deputy director of Naogaon's Department of Agriculture Expansion (DAE).
"This year we expect to produce 3,68,435 metric tons of mangoes in Naogaon," said the DAE officer.
And with the emergence of Naogaon as the new mango capital of Bangladesh, overshadowing Chapainawabganj and Rajshahi, farmers like Sohel Rana are spearheading innovations by adopting, testing and producing foreign variants.
"Mango is actually a South Asian fruit. But we perhaps couldn't create enough varieties of them. However, even though the newer varieties are invented abroad, we are producing a lot of them here, Thai Banana mango for example. We have 1,000 Banana mango trees in our orchard," Rana said.
He sold the Banana mango for Tk150 to Tk200 per kg last year. It ripens at the same time as Amrapali at the end of June, and during the first week to the middle of July. Gouromoti, however, has been the king of his garden since last year.
And this year Rana is expecting more yield.
Exploring Naogaon's Sapahar and Porsha for a few days, we hardly found any barren land. But the farmers we spoke to said that even 10 years back, you could spot vacant land everywhere in these two upazilas because they did not produce enough rice due to the scarcity of water.
But farmers in these two upazilas, and a few other neighbouring upazilas, have adopted mango production over the last 10 years and transformed their barren lands. These lands now rake in better profits than the high-yielding rice-producing lands that this district is famous for.
Amrapali, or acceptance of new variants is the game-changer
The seed of Naogaon's mango revolution was planted in the late 1990s.
The government selected and introduced Indian Amrapali as Bari-3 in Bangladesh. The Amrapali trees are smaller in size but the farmers of Bangladesh's main mango hub of the time, Chapainawabganj and Rajshahi, were not accustomed to seeing such small trees because their trees were huge and a single tree produced tons of mangoes.
Back then, Naogaon farmers did not produce mangoes on the commercial scale they do now. It was produced just like a seasonal fruit – only some would yield more.
While Bari-3 was not as popular with the farmers in Chapai and Rajshahi, some farmers of Sapahar embraced the variant and started production on a test basis.
The Amrapali tree, smaller in size, would produce only a few kilograms of mango in the first year. But when the tree grows a little bigger, it starts to produce much more.
When the farmers realised the benefits, more jumped in, and gradually Amrapali became the trademark mango of Naogaon, said DAE officer Monjure Maula. "Because of Chapai's traditional role in the mango market, it is sometimes misunderstood that Amrapali belongs to Chapai, but it is not the case at all."
Starting in Sapahar, it spread all across Porsha, and in some parts of Patnitala and Niamatpur upazilas.
With gradual growth, mango production finally picked up in 2010. At present, Naogaon is fast progressing to yield more than Chapai and Rajshahi.
"Chapai trees are a hundred years old. Bigger trees have more problems, like you cannot spray them well, and mangoes cannot be collected properly. Even if everything is alright you will see that 30% of mangoes go to waste," farmer Rana said. "But this is not the case with Naogaon's smaller trees. And hence we are taking over the mango production."
"Chapai produces on 38,000 hectare land but for bigger trees, they can grow only a few trees even in large lands. For example, in one bigha land, we have 150-200 trees, but Chapai has only a handful of trees because they are very large in size.
They are incurring losses over the last few years because the mangoes they produce - Langra, Fazli, Khirsapat and Ashwina - are not the highest priced mangoes in the market now," he added.
The DAE's Monjure Maula also echoed Rana, "Chapais' mango yields are low. Their trees are very large and so the orchard gets dark [from the tree canopy], and management is tough. As a result, while we produce 12.5 tons of mangoes per hectare of land, they produce around 8.5 tons of mangoes per hectare."
So what are the high-priced mangoes in the market?
According to Rana, Gouromoti is one of them. This mango is still not produced in large numbers, and when it sells in September, there are no other mangoes in the market. It sells up to Tk300-Tk350 per kg, he said. The Katimon that sells throughout the year sells at Tk400 per kg, while the Banana mango, which comes at the end of June, sells at Tk150 per kg.
The production window of Naogaon farmers is longer than others. It stretches from the first week of June to September – around four months.
And for farmers who are producing Katimon or Bari-11, the widow is 12 months! Whereas the window for the mangoes produced in Rajshahi and Chapai is roughly three months.
When we visited the orchards in late May, a lot of mangoes fell in the storm, and unripe mangoes were selling as low as Tk20 per karate (20kg). As a result, we saw farmers' reluctance to pick up tons of mangoes falling under the tree.
"We severely lack workers during harvest time. This is why I lament that our college students refuse to work in fields during our peak season as part-time workers! They could earn money and gather experience.
I don't understand the useless pride they feel about working in the fields," said Rana who left his profession as a journalist in Dhaka after graduating from Rajshahi University to start farming in 2014.
Perfect use of highlands and the tale of knowledgeable farmers
Shahin Alam, a young farmer of Sapahar, has been in mango farming for the last seven years. He is one of the farmers who transformed his once rice-yielding land into mango orchards.
"My land was almost barren and at the mercy of rainwater. If it had adequate rainwater, we could yield rice once a year, otherwise, it would remain barren. If the nearby thana farmers yielded 20 mon rice per bigha, we would get seven mons," Shahin Alam said.
"After we transformed the land into mango orchards, we made a profit of over Tk50,000 from the same bigha of land that made us around Tk8,000 a year before. As a result, you will not find a piece of land in our Sapahar and Porsha that is empty," Shahin Alam said.
Of around 30,000 hectares of mango land in Naogaon, two-thirds are in Sapahar and Porsha, and the rest is divided into Patnitala, Niamatpur and other upazilas.
"Around 10km away from here, they are cultivating rice because they cannot produce mangoes. Our land is the best fit for mangoes," Shahin added.
Preparing an orchard for mango takes an entire year. The months when mango ripens are the busiest of them all, but work and investment are required all across the year.
"We are doing the best in mango production because we are the most experienced and knowledgeable among the mango farmers," Shahin said, proudly.
"Besides the uniqueness of our land, weather and climate, our farmers are experienced. For example, in a bigha of a mango orchard, we don't hesitate to spend Tk40,000, whether we produce mango or not. It takes a lot of nursing, knowledge and investment to have success in mango production," Shahin said.
Monjure Maula said he wants a mango train for Naogaon's farmers like the ones for Chapai and Rajshahi's farmers.
"The mango train has largely benefited their mango farmers. We are exporting 100 tons of mangoes abroad from Naogaon. If a mango train could be introduced from Santahar, even one or two bogies for the mangoes, it could benefit us a lot," said Maula.