Melon Time in Northern Afghanistan
When the flowers bloom on the watermelon plants, we know it’s time,” said Turday, standing beside a pile of green and yellow fruit. “We move out of our regular houses into the chaila, until the picking season is over.”
The “chaila”, a makeshift enclosure made of branches and twigs, can be seen on most farms in the Aqcha district of Jowzjan province in northern Afghanistan.
Ethnic Turkmen make up the majority of the population here, and melon-growing is a way of life for them.
Turday, 46, comes from a long line of melon farmers, who have carefully passed down the secrets of the trade from father to son.
“I was born in the summer when my parents were busy on the farm,” he said, smiling broadly. “When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw the colours of melons and watermelons. It’s in my blood.”
Turday has 10 jeribs (two hectares) of land, half of which he devotes to melons. For him, the fruit is more than a business; it is a tradition, a way of life.
“I love life on the farm,” he said. “When I return home after melon season is over, I feel like I’m going to prison.”
In Jowzjan, Turday explained, farmland turns into small townships in the late summer, when people start moving out to harvest their melons. Some shopkeepers also migrate with the crowds, setting up temporary stalls to service the melon farmers.
Next to Turday’s land is 66-year-old Hazrat Qul, who regards himself as the district’s most experienced watermelon farmer.
“Melons divide into two categories - those with hard seeds and those with soft seeds. Watermelons, too, come in many different varieties. The sweetest is called ‘makayee’ and has small seeds,” he explained.
The soft-seeded varieties are sold locally, as they do not travel well. Some types only grow in Jowzjan, added Hazrat Qul.
“Loblayee and gorgak melons are so sweet that they aren’t found anywhere else,” he said proudly.
Hazrat Qul picked up a small green fruit and explained that this was a gorgak melon.
“Despite its colour and size, it is the sweetest of all the melons,” he said.
Local farmers grow this variety for their own use only, and never sell them, as doing so is considered unlucky.
“If someone tries to sell a gorgak melon, his family or his farm will come to some harm,” said Hazrat Qul. “Four years ago, a farmer treated this as a joke, and sold his gorgak. The next year his melons did not ripen, and he had almost no harvest. His son was bitten by a snake during irrigation, and he almost died.”
According to Hazrat Qul, farmers can expect to harvest 400 to 600 melons or watermelons from a jerib of land. Melons sell for 30 to 70 afghani each, giving an income of approximately 500 US dollars from every jerib, or 2,500 dollars per hectare
No exact statistics are kept, but Shams, the head of the agriculture department in neighbouring Balkh province, said that preliminary surveys indicated that more than 100,000 jeribs of land across northern Afghanistan were planted with melons.
Deputy agriculture minister Ghulam Mustafa Jawad said Afghan melons were prized in neighbouring countries.
“We export melons daily to Pakistan, and we have very good customers there. The agriculture ministry is trying to find other markets as well,” he said.
No precise export figures were available, Jawad added.
Melon season in the north runs generally from July to November, when the last of the fruit ripens.
Sales generally take place on the farms, with buyers coming out from the towns to find the best produce and prices.
Turday’s melons are now ready, and three buyers from Mazar-e-Sharif are haggling over the price.
“I always buy my melons from this district,” said Nawroz, a businessman. “The people here are honest, and Aqcha melons are popular throughout Afghanistan because of their sweetness.”
Nawroz buys melons from farmers and sells them to retailers in Mazar-e-Sharif.
“People come from all over the place, even Kabul, to buy these melons,” said Nawroz. “I buy at least 10 truckloads a week and sell them at a good profit. In my opinion, melon season is a sacred time for people in the north.”
The harvest requires extra hands, and the pickers are often paid in kind.
“I pick melons on all the farms in this area,” said Nooria, 43, from the Chamtal district of Balkh province. “I get five melons for my labour. That’s good for me – I eat one with my family and sell the others in the market for 200 afghani.”
Markets across the north buzz with activity during melon season. Kunduz province in the northeast stands out both as the largest producer and as the site of the largest melon market in the country. People come from everywhere to buy the fruit.
As the night falls on one market in Kunduz, merchants try to offload the last of their produce so that they can return to their homes.
Mohammad Bashir, 22, is sitting on his pile of melons and calling out to passers-by in a loud, singsong voice, “All of my melons are as sweet as honey. First taste them, then buy them. If they aren’t delicious, I won’t charge you for them.”
He told IWPR that he was selling 600 melons and earning about 2,000 afghani (40 dollars) a day.
“We only have this market for four months a year,” he said. “I wish it lasted all year round.”
Hajji Allah Daad had just made a purchase and was tying two melons onto the back of his bike.
“I bought these for 100 afghani,” he said. “That’s a reasonable price. Our whole family is so used to this fruit that we eat it all summer. My sons get upset and refuse to eat if there is no melon or watermelon on the table. We have to buy melons every day.”
There are melons to suit every pocket, ranging from ten to 80 afghani. “Everyone buys them. Those who can’t afford the expensive ones can buy some for very low prices,” said Allah Daad.
One less conventional use for melons is to prolong the high for cannabis users.
Panji Murad, 20, is the son of Turday, the melon farmer in Aqcha. Sitting in the chaila, he seems lost to the world.
“When we smoke [hashish] and eat melon, it lasts longer,” he said dreamily. “During the summer, when the melons ripen, we get twice the pleasure from drugs. Melons are good for your health, and they keep the drugs from having a bad effect. So during this season I like to smoke a lot.”
He laughed, and said, “We know that melons have another use besides just filling the stomach.”
Melon farming is not as easy as it sounds, as the crop can be hard hit by pests.
“This year there’s a sort of mosquito that is harming our melons,” said Najibullah, a farmer in Balkh. “They infect the bushes when they are flowering, and later, when the fruit ripens, the seeds go black and you can’t eat the melon. In many places entire farms have been devastated.”
Once the flies had settled in an area, he continued, it was almost impossible to replant melons for some years.
“The government has distributed some treatments, but it hasn’t been enough,” complained Najibullah.
The agriculture ministry has taken steps to deal with the infestation.
“We distributed soil treatments to all areas where melons are grown, and the problem has decreased,” said deputy minister Jawad. “But we have not been able to control it 100 per cent. It takes time to wipe out the flies. You can’t do it solely with chemicals; there are other ways, and farmers need to learn them.”
These methods included ploughing up infected land, and leaving fields fallow after a melon crop, he explained.
“We have projects for next year, and we will work with all the farmers,” said the deputy minister. “That way, we’ll be able to wipe out the flies.”
Shams, the head of agriculture in Balkh province, claimed that efforts against the pest had been largely successful.
“Last year the farmers suffered damage to 70 per cent of their crop,” he said. “This year, it was down to 15 or 20 per cent. Fortunately, our farmers have enough experience to know how to deal with plagues.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.