MAZAR-E-SHARIF -- Farmers in Balkh have increasingly turned to growing strawberries over the last two years, abandoning poppy cultivation.
Strawberries have been cultivated on about 200 hectares of land in Nahr-e-Shahi, Balkh, Dehdadi, Chimtal, and Sholgara districts of the province, Mohammad Hassan Azimi, a general manager at the Balkh Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, told Salaam Times.
"Fortunately, our farmers in the last two years have turned to strawberries in five districts," he said last Thursday (May 4). "The income they get from strawberries is much higher than from cultivating other crops."
"Right now, annual yields on 0.2 hectare of land are one to two tonnes. We are planning to build cold storage facilities to store fruit, especially strawberries," he said.
Of the more than 337 metric tonnes of strawberries harvested across the country in 2022, 135 tonnes came from Balkh province, Azimi said, citing Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock statistics.
"Farmers in other parts of the province have also turned to cultivating vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, eggplants, etc. as well as fruits," he added.
Rahmatullah, 51, a resident of Nahr-e-Shahi district, told Salaam Times that he has been growing strawberries on his 0.2 hectare of land since two years ago.
Before that, Rahmatullah cultivated poppies.
"Many of our youth have become addicted to drugs because of this illicit plant," he said. "This illicit plant is not worth cultivating because it takes human lives."
"The majority of villagers around us have turned to growing vegetables and fruits instead of poppies. Growing them and earning one's living from them are halal," he said.
For some farmers, growing poppies led to hardships.
"Every time I received money for growing poppies on my land, I always faced some hurdle –- either my children would become sick, or I would encounter another problem," said Ghulam Mohammad, 37, a farmer in Chimtal district who also previously grew poppies on his 0.4 hectare of land.
Now, after every harvest, he supplies almost 200 boxes of 300g and 600g each of strawberries in the market in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The 300g box sells for 100 AFN ($1.14), while the 600g goes for 200 AFN ($2.28), according to Mohammad.
Mohammad said he no longer feels guilty about the crops that he cultivates.
"I would work so hard all year, but it would not yield any results [because most of the money would go to smugglers and drug dealers]," he said. "Now, since growing strawberries, I have had a good income in the last two years and my life has improved."
"All of the farmers in our area have replaced poppy with strawberries," he added.
Lining smugglers' pockets
Poppy cultivation damages Afghanistan's image and leads to drug addiction for Afghan youth, Zabiullah Azizi, 44, a former employee of the Balkh Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, told Salaam Times.
"Unfortunately, drug smugglers in previous years deceived some of our farmers into believing that poppy cultivation results in high income," he said.
However, growing poppies serves only to line smugglers' pockets, said Azizi.
"Unfortunately, poppies were cultivated secretly in some districts of Balkh province in recent years. But in the last two years, most farmers have turned to halal products such as hing, saffron, soybean, cotton and flowers. They are also satisfied with their income," he added.
"I cultivated poppies for several years, but they created nothing except loss, sin and destruction. I decided to grow strawberries, and because of its high yields, I have had a good income over the last two years," said Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi, 38, a farmer in Chimtal district.
"When I was cultivating poppies in the past, I would be in debt even during poppy harvesting time," he said.