Sajjad Hossain: Potato farms cover about half of the 67,000 hectares of arable land in Dhaka’s Munshiganj district, making it the region’s main cash crop.
And although the popular root vegetable saw good prices last year, people who created stocks in cold storages hoping for similar profits this season are now suffering losses.
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Around 13 lakh tonnes of potato were produced on 37,850 hectares of land in the district this year, about five lakh of which was placed in cold storages.
At present, potato is being sold for about Tk 12 per kilogramme (kg) at the wholesale level while the retail price is around Tk 16 per kg.
Stockists who held back their stocks claim to be suffering losses of between Tk 600 to Tk 650 per 50 kg considering current prices.
“I bought potatoes from farmers at Tk 13 per kg and then had to spend about Tk 125, including labour and incidentals, to move them to a cold storage,” said Babul Pike, another potato trader.
All in all, it costs about Tk 950 to keep a 50-kg bag of potato in a cold storage while it is selling for just Tk 300 to Tk 350.
“So, traders lose about Tk 580 to Tk 600 per bag,” Pike said.
Echoing the same, officials of the district’s Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM) said potato traders were incurring losses of between Tk 120 to Tk 200 per 50 kg.
The price is not high this time due to increased supply but even though this is causing problems for stockists, farmers remain unaffected, they said.
Prashant Kumar Mandal Dulal, manager of the Kadam Rasool cold storage in Munshiganj city, said about 80,000 sacks of potato, each weighing 50 kgs, were kept in his cold storage in March this year.
Since then, about 28,000 sacks have been released.
Dulal went on to say that he is owed about Tk 60 lakh by various people who used his cold storage. So far, Tk 12.6 lakh has been paid but the rest of his creditors seem to have dropped off the map due to bad business.
Each 50-kg sack of potato sold for about Tk 1,400 to Tk 1,500 in 2020 but this year, prices are nowhere near that amount, he added.
Making matters worse, potatoes cannot be kept in cold storage for longer than three to four months, after which the crop must be discarded, said Manoranjan Shah, manager of Nippon Cold Storage.
And with the cold storages set to shut down for the year in November, time is running out for hoarders to sell their stocks.
Besides, it would also cost cold storage owners if the potato traders are unable to pay for the rent or loans owed, Shah added.
He went on to say that of the 2.13 lakh sacks of potato kept at his cold storage, just one lakh has been released so far.
Another reason for the crop’s slow movement is that potatoes were sent abroad last year while that did not happen this year, Shah said.
ABM Mizanul Haque, district market investigator of the DAM, said about 34 per cent of the potatoes kept in cold storage have been unloaded so far.
Haque also informed that about 80 per cent of the potatoes in cold storage were kept by stockists while farmers made up the remaining 20 per cent.
Production has exceeded demand this time as potato has not been included in food aid programmes and neither are there enough potato processing factories in the country, many of which closed down due to Covid-19.
“And although prices are on a downward trend, oblivious farmers continue to plant more potatoes,” he said.
“They should instead cultivate other vegetables while the potatoes that remain after November need to be discarded to make way for fresh produce,” Haque added.
Md Khurshid Alam, deputy director of the Department of Agricultural Extension in Munshiganj, said traders buy potatoes from farmers at about Tk 13 per kg but then sell them for over Tk 22 per kg in retail markets under the pretext of incurring high transportation costs.
“They are even using the coronavirus situation as an excuse for personal gain and only strict market monitoring can solve this issue,” he added.