Qasim Tareen, co-Founder, Islamabad & Karachi Farmers Markets, on the highs and lows of organic farming.
My childhood neighbours in Karachi were often surprised to see me sitting in a tree outside their window. There were a lot of fruit trees in our neighbourhood and I would frequent them for food. That was probably the start of my interest in organic farming; before I even knew it, I was eating wild falsas and spitting out the seeds, some of which may have germinated and grown into trees. Once you have eaten fresh fruit ripened on trees, there is no going back.
Banyan trees in Rehana village and apricot and walnut trees in Mastuj village had a similar effect on me during my childhood. However, it was probably my parents’ – Sultana and Javed – experience with cancer, which had a more tangible influence on my eating clean, fresh food and living a lifestyle more attuned to nature. It all came together when I moved to Islamabad and closer to small family farms. The accessibility of the city to some of the most idyllic landscapes has a powerful charm. Rolling hills, frequent thunderstorms, rivers, lakes and mountain air are a perfect recipe for farming.
I was fortunate to have been gifted approximately seven acres of land near one of Islamabad’s water reservoirs (Simly Dam) by my mother-in-law, Yasmeen Awan. For this, I am eternally grateful; it was a 45-minute drive away from our home and had not been farmed for over 10 years. She not only gifted my wife Mishael and I, the land, she also gave us seed money to help develop the farm we named Isloo Fresh.
Family support means so much not just in monetary terms but socially as well because small-scale farming when not a family business, is not looked upon favourably in our society. However, the attitudes are changing, but more about this later.
My friends Ali Saigol and Faisal Aftab too played a role and were my partners at Isloo Fresh. Today, they are big shots in their own fields. Both had more experience than I in setting up and operating a business. I learned a lot from them. The day when Ali and I met Tulin Khalid and Aashir Rayyan Khan at the late Shayan (Poppy) Afzal Khan’s Kuch Khaas in 2013, it led to the creation of the Farmers Market in Islamabad, our launching pad into the market and community.
You may have all the water in the world but if you don’t have fertile soil, you will not be able to consistently grow tomatoes. I learned this the hard way. Soil is something most of us take for granted and forget that it consists of living organisms which require food, water and shelter. The sooner you realise Mother Nature is your boss, the better.
These experiences and support helped to turn me into an organic farmer. Having said this, my initial approach was very businesslike. I approached organic farming as I would any start-up. Started small, engaged a consultant, enrolled in training courses, printed brochures and business cards, partnered with like-minded folk and created a social media presence.
The first consultant I worked with was Dr Mohammad Naseer in 2013, an entomologist from the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, who specialised in vegetable tunnel farming. We worked together for about six months. His passion for his work was inspiring and his knowledge invaluable. He largely represented the scientific influence on our vegetable farming. Then in 2014, I was pleasantly surprised to hear of a free introductory course organised by the Poultry Research Institute (PRI). It is important to give credit where it is due, in particular to the government for supporting such an initiative and to admire the resourcefulness of our poultry sector. While learning about poultry farming, I participated in the All Punjab Beekeeping Training course, organised by the Beekeeping and Hill Fruit Pest Research Station. In 2015, the Danish Embassy invited me to a Danida Fellowship programme in Sustainable Agriculture in Denmark, where I got to work with some excellent people, most notably representatives of Organic Denmark, the leading association of organic food in the country. It is noteworthy that Danes lead Europe in organic food sales, followed by Luxembourg and Switzerland.
There is still so much more to becoming a successful farmer, not least of which is to be sustainable, environmentally and economically. After five years in the field, I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Some of the biggest challenges I have faced are finding sources of clean water, maintaining soil fertility and increasing the supply of my produce while staying true to the principles of sustainability.
Farming is not for everyone. There are personality traits prerequisites such as patience, patience and patience. More importantly, you need water. We had to look, dig, and pump water before we could even start. It took the better part of a year and lots of manpower and money to get enough water. We are lucky to be in a barani illaqa, a rain-fed area. We have built two, large underground rainwater storage tanks and a small pond to store this precious resource. We still don’t have enough water and we need to be a lot more efficient when it comes to irrigation.
You may have all the water in the world but if you don’t have fertile soil, you will not be able to consistently grow tomatoes. I learned this the hard way. Soil is something most of us take for granted and forget that it consists of living organisms which require food, water and shelter. The sooner you realise Mother Nature is your boss, the better. She will let you know when to sow, what to grow, when to harvest and most importantly, when you make a mistake. My mind was not always open to this realisation and I paid the price.
Given weather-dependent timelines in farming, it is easy to forget about something you observed but did not act upon in time. For example, you may see a leaf begin to curl, insect eggs on a stem or an inactive chicken but do nothing about it until it’s too late. In organic farming, being proactive rather than reactive is essential.
Even if you get it all right, I do not necessarily mean your work is finished. Farmers are realising that they need to access their customers directly. Here is where Farmers Market was a huge help. Nothing like good old-fashioned handshakes and smiles that come with face-to-face interaction; no amount of marketing can replace people getting together and talking about food.
The government and the private sector have to play their part. Organic food and agricultural practices need to be the norm, not the exception. Prices will come down and the long-term benefits are invaluable; be it our health or the economy.
Customers would much rather know the person growing their food and their interactions with farmers created a community. Communities working together are the future of organic farming in Pakistan. They will provide the backbone for the most efficient organic certification systems as we tend to always prefer social-based assurances rather than formal industry standards, especially when it comes to food.
In more aware communities, attitudes to small-scale farming are becoming more supportive. Numerous young, first-time farmers have approached me wanting to know more about my story because they wanted to go into organic farming. I was happy to see they all had the support of their families; a seismic shift in attitudes, considering no one in our parent’s generation that I know of is farming where agriculture was not already a family business.
Community spirit is a large part of sustainable agriculture. Customers need community networks to find good sources of food. Farmers need to interact with consumers to receive the full benefits of their sustainable farming practices.
Pakistan needs small farmers to get it together because they are the ones who will improve current practices. The importance of sustainable agriculture will grow as our population increases and resources decrease. Every inch, every drop, every plastic pellet will matter in the future.
Having said this, we cannot do it alone. The government and the private sector have to play their part. Organic food and agricultural practices need to be the norm, not the exception. Prices will come down and the long-term benefits are invaluable; be it our health or the economy. Mother Nature has given us plenty of warning about our mistakes; it would be wise to heed her advice.
Qasim Tareen is an organic farmer and co-Founder, Isloo Fresh, Taza Tareen and Islamabad & Karachi Farmers Markets.