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08KABUL1051 2008-04-28 12:57:00 UNCLASSIFIED Embassy Kabul
Cable title:  

The Wheat Crop in Nuristan - A Tough Row to Hoe

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1. Summary: As wheat matures on the terraces of lower Nuristan,
some provincial residents are concerned that the crop will not meet
their expectations. With the price of a 50-kg bag of flour reaching
3000 Afghanis (USD 60) in the interior of the province, people are
scrambling to make ends meet. Residents are not aware of global
trends and blame rising local prices on events at the Pakistan
border. The good news is that some basic improvements in
agricultural methods can help the situation in the medium-term: more
efficient irrigation, improved seed, targeted sowing methods and

Concerns Belie Apparent Abundance


2. The terraces of lower Nuristan are lush with a maturing crop of
winter wheat. Residents fear, however, that the upcoming harvest
will not last until the next crop, and they will have to obtain
flour through the cash economy. Prices have fluctuated over the
past few months. Near FOB Kala Gush, a 50-kg bag of wheat flour has
been selling in the market for between 1260 to 1960 Afghanis (USD 26
to 41) since January. Deeper into Nuristan, however, prices now
reach upwards of 3000 Afghanis. As the Nurgram District Agriculture
Director told the PRT, "I make 200 Afghani a month, so even I can't
afford to buy flour." Most residents will barter or borrow wheat
from neighbors who have more, while some will turn to the few
relatively wealthy people in the area to borrow money. While this
year's move away from poppy cultivation will help increase local
wheat supplies, there could be pressure to plant poppy next year to
earn money to buy flour. In the meantime, people will depend more
on their livestock, which forage on whatever vegetation is within

3. Local theories on the reason for higher wheat prices do not
touch on global issues. Elders from Waigal District told the PRT
they had not heard about the rise in global food prices. Instead,
the local view extends as far as the Pakistan border. Even there,
Nuristanis see transitory reasons for price spikes: they have cited
the closure of Torkham Gate during the Pakistani elections, road
closures due to weather, instability in Pakistan, or a Pakistani
policy of punishing Afghanistan by restricting cross-border wheat

A Pound of Cure


4. Locals understand with more precision that they can expand
production with better agricultural methods. Nurgram farmers use 25
to 30 kg of seed per jerib (one jerib is approximately one-half an
acre). This yields about 840 kg of wheat -- rather disappointing in
a region that has year-round sources of water. In the hills of
Do-Ab District, yields are less than half that amount. The good
news is that some basic, low-cost improvements can help.

-- Water: The distribution of water has long been among the most
important matters of local governance in Nuristan. The
rehabilitation and development of irrigation canals is a recurring
request to the local government (and to the PRT). However, there is
also a need for more efficient use of water. Farmers flood their
terraces two or three times each month. Better water storage
facilities and a more precise application of water to the crops
could help address water shortages.

-- Seed: Locals plant with seed from the prior year's crop. This
means seed quality declines over the course of many years. Access
to improved seed could deliver returns in one season. However,
according to the Do-Ab District Sub-Governor, Qari Daoud, NGO
distribution of improved seeds has not worked well in the past. In
some cases, the people who received the seed used it to make bread
to sell. In others, the seed was not suitable for local conditions,
and failed to ripen. The Sub-Governor recommended a more careful
use of seed on demonstration farms, with management by the

-- Sowing: Locals still broadcast seed over the terraces. Sowing
in rows would permit both better growth and more efficient water
usage. It would also facilitate weeding, a critical element of
cultivation to improve nutrient uptake of the wheat plant.

-- Plant health: A red worm has made an appearance locally. This
is not yet a major problem, but locals have voiced a need for
pesticides. To date, there is no evidence of wheat rust.

KABUL 00001051 002 OF 002

5. The use of new varieties and methods will not help the situation
over the next few months. Progress is possible, but a people used
to living on the margins of self-sufficiency will still have a tough
row to hoe.