Turkmenistan revitalises melon farming

Every August, attendees at the traditional Gavun Bayramy festival are seeing more of the sweet fruits, residents of the country say.

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

2014-08-01

ASHGABAT – Melon farming in Turkmenistan is witnessing a resurgence after some years of hardship, farmers and devotees of the juicy fruits say.

For the past 20 years, Turkmenistan has celebrated Melon Day every second Sunday in August to honour the cherished gourds.

Excavations indicate a history of several millennia of melon cultivation in present-day Turkmenistan, archaeologists say.

"The melon, along with Ak Bugdai white wheat, fine handmade rugs and the graceful Akhal-Teke horse, is on the list of the Turkmen people's national treasures," Esenaman Babayev, a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, said.

Turkmens developed 400 species of the 1,600 types of melon known to agronomists, Turkmen scholars say.

"We thank Allah for helping us revitalise the former glory of Turkmen melons, preserve the seeds of the best strains, and overcome this fruit's pest – the melon fly, which nearly caused the melon to disappear as a crop," Seyitkuly Jorayev, a melon farmer from Lebap Oblast with 36 years of experience, said.

"The melon underwent its most difficult times at the turn of the century," he said. "But production levels ... and melon diversity have rebounded."

The government keeps no statistics on melon production, because only small-plot farmers and melon lovers grow the fruits today. But customers buy 10 times more melons today than during the crisis years, farmers say.

Ironically, the pest ended up helping farmers.

"The crisis caused a melon shortage, making them expensive," Jorayev said. "Thanks to that fact, many farmers switched from [other] crops to melons."

Fixing mistakes

Misplaced priorities, not just the melon fly, damaged melon farming after independence in 1991, some say.

"Officials chasing record wheat and cotton production ordered the conversion of watermelon and other melon fields to wheat and cotton farming," Dashoguz Oblast melon breeder Mive Arazbayeva said. "The result was lamentable."

However, melon farming has returned to its former levels, Agriculture Ministry officials say.

"Bitter frosts during the 2007-2008 winter killed the melon pest larvae and pupae," Jorayev said. "Amateur breeders saved the seeds of ... dozens of kinds of Turkmen melons."

However, melon farmers who opposed the conversion of melon fields to wheat and cotton farming are urging the government to re-establish melon farms in every oblast.

Melon-exporting opportunities

Turkmens reportedly have been able to restore to production 300 of the 400 melon types the country and its forebears developed, but melon farmers say the media are exaggerating the number of species saved.

"We have all the requirements needed to provide every kind of melon," Arazbayeva said. "The Academy of Sciences opened experimental crop-breeding centres in the oblasts."

Melons could become a lucrative export, Agriculture Ministry officials say.

"During the 20th century, Turkmenistan annually contributed more than 700,000 tonnes of melons to [the Soviet export picture]," Agriculture Ministry spokesman Ykhlas Amanov said. "We're not exporting a single kilo of melons now. They could bring US $200m−250m [571.8m−714.8m TMT] annually into the treasury."

Such figures are realistic, Jorayev said, given that Turkmens have saved from oblivion several kinds of hard-skinned melons that can be stored and shipped far.

"With an abundance of melons, [mass] processing would become feasible, and you could produce useful syrups (toshab), silky sweet slices (gavun kak), jams and other preserves," he said.

The sky's the limit

The public should not settle for the country's achievements so far in reviving melon farming, specialists say.

"The state should stimulate and support the work of breeders, allocate more land to melon farming, and help with special equipment for commercial-scale farming," Arazbayeva said.

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