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COVID-19 impact: India’s potato farmers hit hard by untimely rains and labour shortages

Having been through a rough patch over the past three years, most potato farmers in the state of Punjab in India are wrapping up the current season with mixed feelings. Even though things are looking up in terms of stable prices due to limited supply, the potato crop was hit hard by untimely rains and a problem of labour shortages at some places due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

It is estimated that the area under potato in Punjab shrunk by around 35% as many farmers decided to shift to other crops – most of them disillusioned by previous losses. With a similar scenario in other states, including Uttar Pradesh, the largest potato growing state, there is a shortage of potatoes in the market and potato growers hope to get better prices.

Presently, the last lots of potato stocks are being moved to cold storage facilities in Punjab. Besides, harvesting of spring potato in some areas will continue through April.

Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha, secretary general of the Confederation of Potato Seed Farmers, said: “The rains delayed the season this time, and it was a critical situation with the temperature keep rising. But the state government intervened timely to allow agriculture-related movement during the lockdown. As a result, we did not face that much labour shortages.”

However, potato cultivation might have been hit negatively as many farmers ran into huge losses during the previous seasons and many had shifted to wheat cultivation. On the other hand, Darbara Singh Samra, a potato farmer from Nawanpind village in Jalandhar said he had lost almost 70% of his crop due to untimely rains and labour shortage due to the lockdown.

“It was a tough job to find labour, and the crop was spoilt at many places due to the bad weather. We have suffered huge losses during this time,” he said. However, potato farmers did not face problems due to a lack of cold storage facilities as there was no glut in the state.

“The downward trend for potato farmers is linked to demonetisation. I remember we had to dump 450 bags of potato in 2018 just to recycle bags for the next season,” said Samra. The silver lining this time, added Sangha, is that prices for potatoes are relatively stable because of a shortage. “The good thing is that stocks were processed in good time. Things were much worse last time due to rains during harvest time. This season, the downpour was not as harsh,” he said.

Presently, potatoes are being sold in markets like Delhi for Rs 800 per 50kg, even though farmers will get much less for their produce. Last year, potato growers had claimed that they had been unable to recover their cost of production and had to keep on harvesting, although their produce sold at only Rs3 per kg.

Traditionally, Punjab has over 96,000 hectares under potatoes. The Doaba region – that produces potato seed for other states – growers did not receive any good returns for their produce in the past three years.

Read the full report on The Times of India here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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