The lone asparagus farmer: pioneering high-value crop
Author / Source : SHERPA HOSSAINY
DHAKA, OCT 17: “The asparagus appeared. They were enormous, succulent, and appetising. The smell of the melted butter tickled my nostrils as the nostrils of Jehovah were tickled by the burned offerings of the virtuous Semites.” — That’s how WS Maugham described the “horribly expensive” vegetable in his witty short story “The Luncheon”. Ansar Ali, a vegetable farmer for almost 40 years, had little idea about asparagus’s inauspicious role in the story where Maugham got ripped off by a woman at a lunch in Paris; however, to Ali, as it seems, the jinxed vegetable for Maugham has surely brought luck. Twelve years ago, Ali, 60, of Bujrukshokra village of Bogra district, was immersed in huge debt following a long legal tussle with a local Union Parishad chairman. Profits from paddy cultivation was barely enough for survival.
“I thought of cultivating something other than paddy or potato that will give me more money, but I was clueless,” Ali told The Independent, recalling his struggles. At that time Thengamara Mohila Sabuj Sangha (TMSS), an NGO, was trying to promote cultivation of atypical vegetables in Bogra. “We provided information and training to farmers. Only Ansar Ali was keen and bold enough to start asparagus farming while others resorted to conventional produce,” said Sardar Mahtabuddin, senior assistant director (agriculture) of TMSS.
TMSS helped Ali by providing him the crowns (used for asparagus cultivation), which cost Tk 14,000 per kg. Ali got 100 grams of it and started growing asparagus on 5 decimals (1 decimal = .01 acre) of land. He never looked back as he made Tk 10,000 profit in the first year.
“Now I grow asparagus on 20 decimals of land and make Tk 50-70,000 profit by selling about 600 kilograms of produce every year,” Ali said. “It’s more profitable than paddy, potato or any other local produce. I sell every kilo at Tk 200 or sometimes at Tk 250 or 300,” he said.
Encouraged by the success, Ali started growing high-value crops (foreign vegetables) such as sweet corn, baby corn, capsicum (red and yellow), squash, cherry tomato, broccoli and iceberg lettuce on 20 bigha of land (1 bigha = 0.33 acre).
“Now I earn Tk 5-7 lakh by selling these produces every year, while I spend around Tk 3 lakh,” the veteran vegetable farmer said.
Apart from asparagus’s lucrative potential for farmers, it also holds a great nutritional value.
According to Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, asparagus is one of the most nutritionally well-balanced vegetables in existence and one of nature’s most perfect foods, as it leads nearly all produce items in the wide array of nutrients it supplies.
Asparagus is a nutrient-dense food which is high in Folic acid and is a good source of potassium, fibre, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamine. It has no fat, contains no cholesterol and is low in Sodium. A 5.3 ounce serving provides 60 per cent of the recommended daily allowance for folacin, which is necessary for blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease.
Obscure as it may be to Bangladeshis, it is a well known culinary delight in the West and also in Southeast Asia. In Bangladesh, there is a high demand for asparagus in the Chinese restaurants and posh hotels in Dhaka. “The expatriates living in Dhaka are the main customers of these vegetables,” Mahtabuddin said.
Although Ali has established a good network over the years he had to struggle to find proper channels to sell his produce in the first few years. “I came to Dhaka myself and supplied them to Nandan superstore and Hotel Sheraton (now Hotel Ruposhi Bangla),” he said.
“Now there’s not enough time for me to go to Dhaka often. I send my produce to suppliers based in Dhaka, who deliver them to superstores like Agora, and 5-star hotels like Westin, Pan Pacific Sonargaon and Radisson,” he said. Some of the produces also go to the vegetable market in Gulshan 1 and 2, he added.
Murad Hasan, a supplier who gets asparagus from Ansar Ali and supplies them to Hotel Ruposhi Bangla, said that Ali is doing a great job but the quantity he is producing is too low and the sizes (diameter of the asparagus) are much smaller than commercially acceptable ones.
However, Hasan said the foreign vegetable import pressure drops during winter as Bangladeshi farmers, especially from Gazipur, Savar, Bogra and Jessore, meet almost 70 per cent of the demand of foreign vegetables. “The prices of those foreign vegetables in the supermarkets also drop during winter as we get them locally,” he added.
Ali’s unconventional farming has drawn attention from many including some curious farmers from the Northern region of Bangladesh who wanted to start off this new venture.
“I have started teaching other farmers, from Mokamtola and Shonatola in Bogra and Ambari in Dinajpur, how to grow foreign vegetables,” Ali said.
Dibakar Saha, one such students of Ali, praised his efforts and said that now he is cultivating cherry tomato, sweet corn and capsicum and making good profits.
“I started learning how to grow asparagus from Ali chacha and hope to start farming asparagus this season. I will take his advice on how to market my produce also,” Saha said.
Mahtabuddin identified marketing as the biggest stumbling block to cultivation of high-value crops. “Producing and selling is completely different. It is really hard to establish the marketing linkage for these crops. That’s why many farmers are reluctant to start the foreign vegetable cultivation,” he said.
Ansar Ali said he was the only farmer in North Bengal and most probably the only one in the country who is producing asparagus.
The TMSS officer said that although Ansar Ali is the only one producing asparagus right now, the NGO is planning to spread this trend and introduce new high-value crops in Bangladesh. Interested farmers can always get TMSS’s help, he added.
“We believe in diversified production of vegetables.
The yield is low for these vegetables but profit is higher,” Mahtabuddin said. Ansar Ali is also eager to help anyone who wants help.
“I may be illiterate but I’m living happily and I am not poor. I’ll be happy to help anyone and show them the way to success,” he said.
Ali believes that the government, by providing cold storage facility, crowns at cheaper price, and training, can take this high-value crop farming to a more feasible stage.
“If the government sends farmers abroad for training, we can make hundreds of Ansar Ali in every corner of Bangladesh,” the lone asparagus farmer hoped.