Tunnel farming — also known as hydroponic cultivation — allows these Pakistani villagers to produce summer vegetables at any time of the year. (ucanews.com photo)
It was the wheat harvest in a Christian-majority village in Pakistan but a small group of farmers were inspecting a vegetable garden behind their Catholic church.
Excited, they pulled out the first yield of cucumbers, bitter gourd and apple gourd from wired furrows, ready to help take their baskets to the market. This was made possible by the local church's social service agency, Caritas Pakistan Multan (CPM).
"We only used fertilizer once while preparing the ground and the results were still incredible. Our vegetables are bigger and tastier than others growing in this area. With minimal expense, we hope for a good profit," said Amjad Farooq, showing a 500 gram bitter gourd.
This is the first time the farmer, from Amritnagar village area which is home to 24,000 Christians, has experienced growing summer vegetables during a different season. "We used to sow their seeds in late February but now we can grow any type of vegetables any time of year," said Farooq. "Merchants pay more for off-season vegetables and they are usually sold at a higher price in the markets."
Farooq is one of six farmers, three of them women, employed by CPM to bring a technique called tunnel farming — also known as hydroponic cultivation — to their community. Each farmer works two days per week on the project on church lands.
Father Raymond Saeed allocated land for the project in the compound of Holy Eucharist Church while CPM paid to build the tunnels using 120 alloy frames, plastic netting and covering bags.
Tunnel farming grows vegetables beneath protective plastic tunnels and as a method it produces vegetables that are very nutritious and creates large yields.
The use of tunnels has enabled farmers to protect their crops from inclement weather and differing temperatures. However, the advantage of being able to grow and sell vegetables in the off-season reduces as the use of tunnel farming becomes more ubiquitous.
It is still early days for tunnel farming in Pakistan and the method is part of Caritas' non-formal education and income generation project in Multan Diocese. All six farmers, including Farooq, have children or relatives studying in two Caritas education centers in the village.
Caritas Germany is financing 15 vocational educational centers in five districts of Southern Punjab province. The charity provides school bags and study materials to 450 children who dropped out of school so they can attend the non-formal education centers.
"This is an effort to support the families of our students. They can help and share profits from our chicken and organic vegetable farm and shops that make clothes and decoration pieces," said Samuel Clement, CPM executive secretary.
"After the completion of the pilot phase, drip irrigation will commence in November to grow off-season vegetables. Hopefully these modern agricultural techniques will improve the economic conditions of our farmers," he said.
Watch this uncanews.com video of the villagers tending to their tunnel farm.
The Punjab government launched its first major initiative on tunnel farming in 2005 and presently 18,000 hectares are being used in this way. According to Ayub Agricultural Research Institute, Pakistan produces more than 8 million tons of vegetables annually.
Still, 43 percent of the country's citizens remain food insecure with 18 percent facing severe shortages, according to the World Food Program. Javed Iqbal, a Muslim agriculture expert who guides Caritas farmers, said tunnel farming projects can aid both consumers and producers.
"The profit from a 0.4-hectare tunnel farm can range from 70,000 rupees (US$667) to 800,000 rupees. However, the fluctuating rates of agriculture produce and the hard work needed to protect sensitive, off-season vegetables pose major challenges. The ongoing energy crisis and fuel shortages in the country also hamper farming activities," he said.
According to Father Saeed, the diocese will continue supporting the project for five years.
"Church farmland and schools will be used by Caritas teams to engage trained people in tunnel farming. Local farmers will need Caritas support in building similar tunnel structures as they are expensive," he said.
Under its Livelihood and Food security program, Caritas Pakistan conducted 57 workshops for farmers, installed 612 smokeless stoves, four kitchen garden training sessions, eight sessions for women entrepreneurs, vaccinated 20,312 livestock and ran 10 workshops on climate change in all the seven dioceses of the country in 2015.