A backyard seedling bonanza
In rural Tajikistan, closely packed houses nestle up to the roads behind high walls, with large hidden backyards stretching out behind them. Traditionally a space for families to grow fodder for household animals, these yards are now flourishing with the support of a USAID project to promote small-scale protected cultivation of seedlings and fresh vegetables. The cost of the investment can be returned in only one season.
With 93% of its land area covered by glaciated mountain ranges, agricultural land is in short supply in Tajikistan. The growing season is limited by winter temperatures below -20°C and hot dry summers over 40°C. Growing vegetable seedlings under cover during winter enables a faster start for field crops in spring. Protected cultivation also extends the short summer growing season.
Khatlon province where the project is located is the main agricultural production area in the country. Nurali Saidov leads the WorldVeg-USAID program in Tajikistan, and over the past three years, he and his team have developed new designs and practices for small-scale protected cultivation. Through extensive on-farm research, training, and technical support they have successfully shown that seedling and fresh vegetable production under cover can be highly profitable.
One of the pioneers of this revolution is Eftakov Mirzomakhmadi in the village of Mushkurut, Abdurakhmoni Jomi district. Two years ago he started with a small 20 m2 (2.5 x 8 m) polynet house where he grew 5000 vegetable seedlings during the winter. Cucumbers only take 30 days while tomatoes take 45-50 and sweet pepper and eggplants 60-65 days before they are ready to be sold. From May to December he replaces seedling production with growing tomatoes for market.
The new 240 m2 (8 x 30 m) polynet house now taking shape in his backyard will cost USD 3000 to build; three-quarters of the cost is subsidized by the project. Experience gained over the last two years has refined the design. A strong steel framework prevents snow damage during the winter. Encircling water-filled pipes heated by a small coal burner inside the polyhouse provide extra warmth for young seedlings and melt snow off the roof.
During summer the plastic walls providing winter protection are replaced by netting to keep out insects. Good aeration keeps the structure cool in hot weather. Drip irrigation helps optimize water use and reduces humidity. Mr. Mirzomakhmadi produces his own mixture of soil, sand and compost-based planting media that is chemically sterilized before use and is now moving into using plastic planting trays that can be recycled for up to three years.
Good returns from seedlings and fresh vegetable production mean that the full cost of construction can be paid for in one season. The USAID project has helped build 26 polynet houses spread across all districts in the 250-km long Khatlon valley.
Mr. Mirzomakhmadi has plenty of demand for his seedlings—and plenty of neighbors interested in following his lead into protected cultivation. His customers are mainly commercial vegetable growers who pre-order their seedlings before spring, which he then personally delivers.
Dr. Saidov estimates said that there are 40-50,000 hectares of vegetables grown in Tajikistan, including 12,000 ha of tomatoes. “Just for tomatoes there is a need for at least 500 million seedlings, but at present only 3-4% of our vegetable crops are grown using quality seeds or seedlings,” he said.
He estimates that a farmer owning a 100 m2 polynet house can raise 15-20,000 seedlings if well managed, and this can earn up to USD 2500 in three months. “Even if a farmer has to take out a loan at the usual rate of 18-36% interest this is still a profitable investment,” he says.
In the space of two years, the project has increased seedling production in Tajikistan to 1.2 million seedlings per year. Given the size of the market and the enthusiasm of Mr. Mirzomakhmadi’s neighbors, many more rural backyards in the Khatlon valley may soon be transformed into seedling production centers.
Story and photos: Warwick Easdown and Ravza Mavlyanova