Sylhet was once known for its two agricultural products - tea and orange. But now orange cultivation has been on the decline due to a number of factors, including increase in production cost, hostile weather, decline of soil fertility and reduction of hilly land.
Due to the decrease in the production of local oranges and cheaper price of the imported ones from China, India, Bhutan, Nepal and other countries, orange traders are now inclined towards the imported varieties. Fearing losses, Sylhet's farmers have also lost interest in orange cultivation.
Abul Kalam, a fruit importer of the district, said import of orange had tripled over the last five years.
Former school teacher Abdul Shukur from Matiura area of Beanibazar said, "We do not have our own gardens. But we did not have to buy oranges before. The owners of the surrounding gardens used to give us lots of oranges for free. But now even if you're prepared to pay, you will not get local varieties of oranges in the market. Now we have to eat imported oranges, which have no taste and scent."
Jaldhup in Beanibazar upazila of the district is renowned for orange farming. The oranges produced there were known as 'Jaldhuper Kamala.' But now orange cultivation in this village is decreasing. Most of the farmers have lost interest in orange cultivation.
Nitol Bhattacharya, an orange farmer of Jaldhup, said, "There was a time when there used to be an orange orchard next to every house in our area. But now most of the villagers have left orange cultivation. Orange orchards can now be seen in 20 to 25 houses at the most in the entire village."
"Orange trees no longer produce yield indefinitely if they are left uncared for. Now you have to nurture the trees and soil. But the farmers here are very indifferent to these things," he further said.
Salah Uddin, deputy director of the Sylhet Office of the Department of Agricultural Extension, said there were around 450 orange orchards in Sylhet in 2008.
The number of the orchards has now decreased to around 300, some of which are no longer productive, he said.
However, agriculture officials of the department could not estimate the number of oranges cultivated in the district.
Gunendra Deb, a farmer at Gourabari village in Beanibazar upazila of Sylhet, has about 100 orange trees in his garden. He sold oranges worth around Tk50,000 last year.
But this year, the fruits fell from the trees before maturing.
"I will have to face losses this time," he said.
Gunendra said he had requested the Upazila Agriculture Officer to visit the garden several times. But the official did not visit, nor did he provide any recommendations.
Gunendra and several other orange farmers of the area have shared similar stories with The Business Standard.
However, Beanibazar Upazila Agriculture Officer Kazi Anisuzzaman denied the allegations, saying that orange orchards in Beanibazar were not properly maintained.
"Moreover, if the soil loses its fertility and it is too hot when flowering, flowers and fruits may fall off," he said.
Most of the orchard owners in Beanibazar live overseas, he continued.
"As a result, the gardens remain uncared for, which is why the yield is poor. However, we always advise the farmers," he said.
Ibrahim Ali, an orange farmer of Galasangan village in Beanibazar upazila, said the expected yield had not been achieved for the last few years. Insects attack the trees before the fruits get a chance to mature. As a result, oranges fall from the trees before ripening, he said.
"Now instead of making a profit through orange cultivation, we are incurring losses. Many people have left orange cultivation due to these losses," he said.
According to the Upazila Agriculture Extension Department, oranges are cultivated on 50.52 hectares of land in 150 orange orchards in Beanibazar.
Officials at the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) said orange production was declining in Sylhet due to farmers' lack of training, inadequate maintenance of trees and soil, and farmers' indifference towards the same.
On the other hand, a group of researchers from Soil Resources Development Institute conducted a study on orange cultivation in Sylhet in April 1997. According to their report, orange cultivation was decreasing due to soil infertility.
They pointed out that it is possible to make a profit with orange cultivation provided fertilizers are applied, orange plants are properly maintained, and diseases are identified.
However, a project was ongoing to train farmers and increase orange cultivation in the region, said DAE officials.
In 2001, a project was undertaken to motivate the farmers on orange cultivation. During the eight-year project titled 'Greater Sylhet Integrated Orange Cultivation Development,' 250 orchards were planted in four districts of Sylhet division.
Although this project increased the interest in orange cultivation, orange cultivation had come to a standstill by the end of this project in 2007.
In 2019, 11 years after the completion of the previous project, the DAE took up another project to increase orange cultivation in Sylhet.
This second project to increase orange production, titled 'Expansion, Management and Increase of Production of Citrus Fruits' is currently ongoing in nine upazilas of Sylhet and Moulvibazar, viz., Beanibazar, Gowainghat, Bishwanath, Golapganj and Jaintapur in Sylhet and Juri Baralekha, Srimangal and Kulaura in Moulvibazar, which have the highest yield of oranges and lemons.
The project is aimed at creating new orange orchards and increasing production by 15-20 percent through the old orchard system, according to the deputy director of the Sylhet Office of the Department of Agricultural Extension.
He also said the farmers of the region were not interested in orange cultivation and lacked training.
However, he hoped that the lost, golden days of Sylhet would be restored through the ongoing project.