COVID-19 restrictions and ongoing droughts in Afghanistan have continued to create hardships for farmers, whether they are dealing with low crop production or restrictions on transport routes for their produce. In February, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations hosted a technical training session for farmers in northern Afghanistan. Held in the Noorgal district of the Kunar province, farmers learned about wheat cultivation, land preparation, irrigation systems, and how to apply fertilizer correctly.
The session was led by an extension worker, who told attendees that without a good foundation in farming techniques, they could not ensure regular harvests. The FAO has held similar sessions in 16 Afghan provinces. Organizers estimate that more than 36,000 farmers have attended them. Much of the training focused on growing wheat, the dominant crop in Afghanistan that is cultivated in every province.
While Afghan farmers grow wheat on more than 2.7 million hectares each year, the country still depends on about 1 million tons of imports from neighboring Turkmenistan and Pakistan to supply enough wheat for demand within the country. Officials have stated that stabilizing and expanding wheat production is critical to food security in Afghanistan, and the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock has made it a priority crop.
Fertilizer Application Lessons
One of the primary topics covered in the FAO workshop was the application of urea, or “white” fertilizer, a chemical fertilizer made of nitrogen, phosphorus pentoxide, and potassium oxide that farmers use in conjunction with manure fertilizer. Urea typically is applied during planting, tillering, and flowering, but applying it at the wrong time or the wrong way can cause problems with crops.
In his training session, extension worker Abdul Qodus Shams covered the best way to apply urea to wheat crops, which sometimes conflicts with traditional practices. For example, many farmers believed they were carefully tending their crops by only applying urea once during the season. Crops will grow better with more frequent applications.
The workshop leaders taught farmers that that urea can be used to build a foundation for a solid crop, allowing wheat to grow strong. FAO leaders promote using urea throughout the season, applying it when sowing seeds and tillering and during the wheat’s heading stages.
As the wheat grows, the urea creates strong plants that will not succumb to crop diseases, insects, or the unseasonably heavy rains or draughts that have become common in Afghanistan. Many farmers were surprised at the knowledge, which they had not heard before.
“This is the big secret that has been unveiled to me thanks to this training,” Pak Rahman, a farmer who has attended an FAO workshop on wheat growing, told a media outlet. “I immediately put this advice into practice for this cropping season and my crops are growing healthier, greener, and stronger.”
Other farmers have reported seeing “remarkable” improvements in their wheat crops after changing their fertilizer application schedules and practices.
Economically Sustainable Growing
Along with dealing with temperamental Afghan weather and poor growing conditions, many wheat farmers also have struggled with economic issues that have impacted their crops. For example, COVID-19-related lockdowns caused commodity prices—including the price of wheat seeds—to skyrocket.
This meant that more than 90 percent of farmers, many already in a precarious economic position, could not afford to buy certified wheat seeds because their price was too high or they were not available locally. For some farmers, that meant their fields went unused. Others could not access the seeds or fertilizer they needed.
Participants in the FAO workshop each were given a “wheat cultivation package” that included 50 kilograms of certified wheat seeds, 50 kilograms of diammonium phosphate fertilizer, and 50 kilograms of urea fertilizer. This key emergency assistance, according to FAO estimates, could help as many as 750,000 people as it counteracts some of the impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns and food instability.
Farmers say that the wheat cultivation package and the education they received at the FAO workshops are helping them become self-sufficient and increase their harvests. They have learned the most optimal times to plan, when and how to apply fertilizer and irrigate, and how to cultivate quality wheat seeds.
As well as providing education about wheat cultivation, FAO officials also presented COVID-19 information at the workshops. Many farmers did not know about the danger of the pandemic or safety measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and the workshop taught farmers how to take steps to stay safe on the farm and at the market.
The workshops were funded by the Central Emergency Response Relief Fund, which the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs manages through its Underfunded Emergencies window. The program’s overall goal is to help farmers and their families throughout Afghanistan by lessening the food crisis and counteracting the impacts of COVID-19, especially for people who already are vulnerable.