Despite a bumper yield of watermelon in Barishal division, the top producer of the popular summer fruit, farmers and traders fear massive losses because of the new containment measures aimed at curbing the rise in coronavirus infections.
The sales of watermelons in the retail market have fallen significantly in Patuakhali, a district in the southern division which accounts for a third of the national output of the fruit, as many consumers have stopped going out because of the sharp increase in the number of virus caseloads and deaths from the disease.
The presence of consumers was found to be thin during visits to New Market, Puran Bazar and Hetalia Bandhghat Bazar in Patuakhali town.
Uttam Kumar, a watermelon trader in New Market, said the number of buyers had come down due to the restrictions.
"Before the latest restriction, I could sell 100 to 150 pieces of watermelons a day. Now, I can't sell more than 50 watermelons."
Abul Hossain, a trader in Hetalia Bazar, said many people did not want to leave their homes due to the restriction.
"Moreover, there is no buyer for watermelons as many have lost jobs, and the incomes of many people have dropped because of the persisting pandemic. This has reduced the demand for watermelon as well as the price."
Before the latest restriction, watermelon was sold at Tk 30 to 35 per kg. The price has now declined to Tk 15 to 20 per kg.
Watermelon was planted on 38,824 hectares of land across the country this year with a production target of 19.25 lakh tonnes.
Watermelon is cultivated in all of the six districts in Barishal, with Patuakhali being the top producer. Barishal division churns out 70 per cent of total watermelons of the country.
In the Barishal division, watermelons were planted in 24,688 hectares of land. The production target has been set at 12.24 lakh tonnes, according to an official of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE).
In Patuakhali, the fruit was cultivated on 14,822 hectares of land with a production target of 7.43 lakh tonnes, said Md Aftab Uddin, additional director of the DAE in Barishal.
The DAE estimates that the market value of watermelons will exceed Tk 1,000 crore.
AKM Mohiuddin, deputy director of the DAE in Patuakhali, said watermelon production had improved this year due to favourable weather.
"Watermelon yield is good in the loamy soils in the region. In addition, the colour of watermelon is bright. The watermelon produced in the region is delicious."
Kartik Dutta, president of the Barishal Fruit Traders' Association, said despite the bumper crop this time, there was a possibility of not getting the expected price due to the movement restriction.
At least 70 vehicles used to go to Dhaka, Rajshahi, Khulna and other parts of the country with 15 tonnes of watermelon per truck per day before the restriction, which was slapped on Monday. The number of vehicles carrying the fruits has come down to 40 to 45, he said.
"The demand has dropped by at least 30 per cent, and the price has dropped by at least 15-20 per cent."
At the wholesale market, a piece of watermelon weighing 8-10 kg was sold at Tk 16-18 per kg before the restriction. It has fallen to Tk 14-15 per kg.
The price of watermelon weighing 5kg to 6kg has declined from Tk 10,000 to Tk 12,000 per maund to Tk 7,000-7,500 per 100 pieces.
The price has come down at the retail level as well.
A big-sized watermelon is being retailed at Tk 150 to Tk 160 from Tk 200 previously, according to a fruit retailer in Barishal.
Farmers said that due to the decline in demand, they are in trouble with watermelon in the field.
Faruk Hossain, a watermelon farmer from Jahajmara village in Rangabali upazila of Patuakhali, said, "I sold watermelons at a lower price during the lockdown last year."
"Many watermelons rot in the fields."
After the government imposed a strict countrywide restriction on the movement of people and transport vehicles from Monday, farmers have been paying more to move the perishable fruits.
Ferdous Gazi, a farmer of Amkhola village in Galachipa upazila, said the cost of transportation has gone up on the pretext of the movement restriction.
Earlier, it used to cost Tk 15,000 to 18,000 to send a truck full of watermelons from Amkhola Bazar to Dhaka. The fare has gone up to Tk 22,000 to 25,000, he said.
Sanker Karmaker, a watermelon farmer of Char Fashion upazila in Bhola district, said the watermelon had ripened, but they could not send them to markets as per demand.
A trawler carrying watermelons from Bhola to Barishal now costs Tk 4,000, from Tk 3,000 previously.
"Although the cost has increased, the price of watermelon is decreasing every day," the farmer said.
Regarding the fear of loss of the farmers due to the movement restriction, Mohiuddin of the DAE Patuakhali said 70 per cent of watermelons had already been picked from the fields in the district and sent to different parts of the country.
"We are taking necessary steps to send the rest of the crop."
During the lockdown in April and May last year, the peak season for the delicious fruit, the government had provided transport and marketing facilities to farmers.
Faruk Hossain urged the government to provide watermelon growers with the same facility this time as well so that they do not face any hindrance in moving the goods.