"Whenever someone visits for the first time, the serenity of being surrounded by saplings all around is bound to amaze. Sometimes even I am baffled by the many varieties added over the years."
Eagerly showing off his prized possession, Sarder Abdus Salam, owner of one of the country's biggest nurseries, emanates genuine love for greenery.
The passion caught on from his mother. And that took his business to astounding heights.
To bring things to perspective, Hybrid Nursery in Khulna sells anywhere between 10,000-15,000 saplings every day during the peak planting period in late monsoon.
Its annual revenue hovers in the region of Tk 10 crore to Tk 15 crore. And Salam has expanded his business from one bigha of inherited land to over 100 bighas.
"Trees never betray…as you treat or nurse plants will they reciprocate threefold," said the man with green fingers.
He said his mother Rokeya Begum used to nurse saplings as if they were her own children.
She started the business 45 years back to bring some financial solvency to the family.
"She didn't have any other use of coconuts and betel nuts falling to the ground on their own, so that got her thinking how she could use those to bring in some money," said Salam.
Begum decided to start planting those on a wetland and sell the saplings once they germinate, leading to the founding of Rokeya Nursery and Salam's four brothers joining in.
She was presented a national agriculture award in 2007 while Salam another in 2015.
The nurseries sit in Bejerdanga area of Phultala upazila, where the soil is said to be very much fertile, enabling the cultivation of various fruit, wood and medicinal plants and trees.
"I took on the business in 1990 with the high demand for foreign fruits and trees in mind," said Salam.
He said to have a longing for cultivating fruits of high quality, for which he experimented with local varieties.
"I thought about how I could increase the sweetness of oranges and grapes. My target was to do something special, that nursery owners generally do not even think of," he said.
His trials led him to bring over various varieties of flowers and improved varieties of fruit trees from abroad.
Salam also strives to preserve plants and trees facing the threat of extinction.
He now has around 3,400 species, all available for sale.
"There are some 10 to 12 lakh saplings of different varieties of fruits, wood and medicinal trees at my nurseries where more than 75 farm hands are employed," Salam said.
"I am supplying my saplings to districts around the country. Some NGOs are also buying these saplings to export to Europe and other countries," he said.
A visit to the area earlier this week revealed a sprawling nursery industry involving 15 villages, all of which came about in the late 70s.
The business is helping some 30,000 people in and around the upazila lead a better life.
Over 5,000 are directly earning wages from the nurseries, thanks to increasing demand for saplings, said SM Nazmus Sakib Shahin of the Department of Agricultural Extension's Phultala office.
Poverty is being alleviated, people are becoming self-reliant while the rural economy, environment, ecology and biodiversity are improving, he said.
However, many of the nursery owners conveyed a mass exodus of entrepreneurs from the business for a lack of space.
This was evident from mushrooming brick kilns and industrial factories all around.
Those who were putting in the effort to continue running nurseries taking lease of land further out were being bogged down by a doubling of production cost.
Many could not bear the continuous losses. Now there are 350 nurseries, down from 1,778 a decade ago. Exacerbating the situation was the coronavirus pandemic.
Customers could not come freely, so tens of thousands of saplings are being left out on the field to die out, said Abul Basar, chairman of Phultala sadar union and secretary to Phultala Nursery Owners Association.
"We are now facing a scarcity of land. Many brick kilns and other industrial establishments, including jute mills, are being set up on fertile land. This is proving a hindrance in expanding our business," he said.
"We have been demanding that the government designate the area as a nursery zone," he said.
Time has come to think about the environmental benefits as well as economic development facilitated by nurseries, added Basar.
Last season, saplings worth around Tk 25 lakh to Tk 30 lakh were sold every day. Due to the coronavirus, daily sales this year were barely reaching Tk 5 lakh to Tk 6 lakh, said Md Anwar Hossain, president of Phultala Upazila Nursery Owners Association.
"We depend on the nursery industry all year round to support our families. Due to the low sales, we are struggling to meet expenses, including that for labour," he added.