Sugarcane cultivation continues to decline as farmers are getting reluctant to grow the crop that takes more than a year to mature but brings lower returns compared to other crops.
Sugarcane acreage almost halved to 2.42 lakh acres in fiscal 2015-16 from that in fiscal 1990-91, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
Farmers blamed lower yield and unattractive prices offered by state mills.
“Cultivation will rise if the government mills buy sugarcane at higher rates. It is also important to introduce high-yielding varieties with better sugar content,” said Mohammad Akmat Ali, a farmer in Darshana under Chuadanga district.
Darshana hosts state-run Carew & Co, a sugar maker and distillery, and many farmers in the mill area grow sugarcane either on mill lands or on their own. But the number of growers has been falling in the locality with maize acreage rising.
Akmat, the 70-year-old farmer who lives in a village near the Carew & Co factory, planted sugarcane on three acres this year. He used to grow sugarcane on 10 acres several years ago.
“Maize was not familiar to us in the past, but now we are growing the crop, which matures in three to four months,” he said.
In Chuadanga, Jhenaidah and Jessore areas maize, vegetables and rice dominate the cropland. Plantation of sugarcane is mostly seen on areas near state-run sugar mills.
Akmat and his peers in Darshana said cultivation of maize brings them quick returns.
Sugarcane grows in 15 months, but a farmer can yield three-four crops during this time, said Safdar Ali, a neighbour of Akmat.
“It is difficult to offset losses in case of sugarcane cultivation. If we cultivate crops like maize that matures in a shorter period we can switch to other crops to make up for the losses,” said Akmat.
Due to longer cultivation time of sugarcane, small farmers and those who cultivate by leasing in lands prefer maize and other shorter duration crops rather than sugarcane.
But as sugarcane does not require much care, a section of large farmers, especially those who have non-farm incomes, have interest in growing sugarcane.
However, the number of such growers is falling for increasing fragmentation of land ownership, delay in getting payment from mills and pest attacks, said farmers and agricultural extension officials.
“The current price as well as sugarcane yield is not attractive,” Safdar said, adding that farmers get Tk 110 for each maund of sugarcane from state mills. The average yield is 200 maunds per bigha, he said.
AKM Delwer Hussain, chairman of Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation (BSFIC), which operates 15 state-run sugar mills, said higher price would encourage increased cultivation and help mills get more sugarcane.
BSFIC sugar mills require more than 25 lakh tonnes of sugarcane to utilise their annual sugar production capacity of 2.10 lakh tonnes, officials said.
Hussain said sugar prices should be raised to increase prices of sugarcane. Sugar mills officials said farmers are encouraged to plant sugarcane along with a 'companion crop' such as mustard, pulse and gram on the same land so that they get higher returns. But Safdar said the cultivation of a companion crop along with sugarcane does not bring any profit.
An official of the Department of Agricultural Extension suggested introducing varieties that ensure higher yields.
“New high yielding varieties are being introduced. But we are yet to get a miracle variety. Research needs to be strengthened for this,” said the official.
Sugarcane production fell 5 percent year-on-year to 42.07 lakh tonnes in fiscal 2015-16, according to BBS.
Locally grown sugarcane is the raw material for the state-run mills that meet less than 10 percent of Bangladesh's annual demand for sugar of around 20 lakh tonnes. More than 95 percent of the demand is met through imports, according to industry insiders.