Tea in, tobacco out
Tea is fast replacing tobacco in Kishoreganj upazila of Nilphamari as favourable weather and soil conditions along with a ready market next door mean large profits for farmers.
Panchagarh, a neighboring northern district, has already emerged as a top producer after the traditional tea-growing regions Sylhet and Chattogram.
Now, Nilphamari follows with tea finding ideal conditions in these sub-Himalayan northern districts.
Upazila Agriculture Officer Md Habibur Rahman said the tobacco cultivation area is shrinking in Kishoreganj upazila every year as more and more tea is being cultivated.
This year, tobacco was produced in only 420 acres of land in the district -- down from 625 acres five years ago, he added.
Tobacco farmers said a yield of around 25 maunds of tobacco from an acre earns them Tk 60,000 on average; but nearly 50 percent of this is spent as production costs.
They also suffer from a sense of stigma, as they unwillingly contribute to harming human health.
This shift from tobacco to tea gradually came due to local leadership taking note of the prevalence of tobacco cultivation in the district.
The then Kishoreganj upazila parishad chairman Rashidul Islam said former UNO Siddikur Rahman, noticed during his tenure in 2015 that local farmers were interested more in tobacco cultivation since it was considered a cash crop.
"He discussed with me about replacing tobacco and contacted the regional office of Bangladesh Tea Board [BTB] at Panchagarh about getting saplings and technical support," he said.
That first time, tea was cultivated on eight acres of fallow land in the upazila parishad campus, added Rashidul, who was then serving as president of the upazila tea cultivation committee.
After two years, tender green tea leaves were plucked and was sold for a handsome amount of cash which was added to the Parishad's fund.
"Seeing their success, many farmers like me created tea gardens on our own land -- where we once cultivated tobacco. Others followed," said tea grower Jahangir Alam of Keshba village.
The District Small Tea Growers' Association has 32 members officially registered by BTB, with the exception of a few others who cultivate tea outside the association.
Abdul Hamid, secretary of the association, said four tea processing factories in Panchagarh -- North Bengal, Popular, Baliadangi, and Fabia -- purchase tender green tea leaves produced in various tea gardens of Kishoreganj.
Zahed Imam Siddiquee, senior farm assistant of BTB, said, "Our department initiated a four-year project to boost tea cultivation in the area and accordingly, are providing tea saplings to local farmers at a subsidised rate and also arranging training, technical support, and equipment."
A matured garden yields tender tea leaves in full swing after three years and continues to do so for 50-60 years at a stretch, with minimal maintenance and costs, he added.
Every month, 3,000kg of leaves and buds can be plucked from an acre which would earn the grower Tk 78,000, at a rate of Tk 26 per kg.
"Leaves can be collected in 12 rounds a year if labourers are skilled, bringing in huge profits," he added.
However, Rokon Ibne Aziz, president of the District Small Tea Growers' Association, said the startup costs of a tea garden are high -- as almost 8,000 saplings are needed in an acre leading to a cost of up to Tk 80,000 as each sapling is sold in private nurseries for Tk 8-10.
Although profitable, it is difficult for small farmers to wait for three years to get a yield, he added, and so, the government should provide more loans on easy terms in order to expand this sector.