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Renita Jablonski: Afghanistan has an age-old reputation as an exporter of high quality nuts and dried fruits. This is despite a series of wars stretching from the late 70s. For instance, almonds from the country still fetch as much as 30 percent more in India as almonds from other countries.
But those years of war have destroyed many of Afghanistan’s prized orchards. Many would-be new growers are now left without the knowledge to bring the orchards back. Gregory Warner reports from Kabul.
Gregory Warner: Talk to horticulturists about Afghanistan before the war, they get a faraway look in their eye. The country was once the world’s top raisin exporter and a fertile ground for new varieties. The most popular table grape in the world, the Thompson Seedless, is a version of the native Sultana, once traded on the Silk Road.
Greg Cullen: And I don’t know how many thousands of trees there are here, there’s an awful lot, eh?
Horticulturist Greg Cullen takes me to a local roadside market in Kabul, where villagers gather to sell fruit trees. Cullen has been mapping today’s Afghanistan to find the next Thompson Seedless, or some local pistachio or almond that can recapture global markets. The process starts with these tree growers.
Cullen: So his name is Mohmad Hashem? So he’s got apples, pears, apricots . . .
That Hashem has a market at all is encouraging, but the years of war, which destroyed his family’s farm and isolated his village, took its toll on knowledge. The next thing he does demonstrates this. He pulls out shears and snips most of the buds off his tree. That’s the fruit grower equivalent of a real estate agent selling you a house by smashing the windows.
Cullen: He says the branches from the bottom wouldn’t give any fruit.
Warner: Is that true?
Cullen: No! They’re the ones that would fruit earlier.
Warner: So there’s just a complete . . .
Cullen: Just completely wrong. The trees are grown wrong.
Western aid organizations have spent some $50 million in the past two years just on horticulture projects. And Afghans are optimistic, planting some three to four million new trees each year, according to government surveys.
But Cullen wonders how many of those new trees will live to flower, or if they’ll be marketable.
Cullen: The assumption was that people have a general knowledge and they just need some incentives to move ahead, plant some more, improve standards a bit, and things will be right. But we’re pretty sure in our projects, most farmers don’t have very basic knowledge about how to grow fruit trees.
If they can get this right, Afghan almonds or pomegranites would be more profitable than poppy. It takes five years for a tree to start producing fruit. For people living day-to-day, that’s a long time to wait to see what business will bloom.
In Kabul, I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.
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