When switching from a traditional apple orchard to a modern intensive one, solid information and know-how make all the difference.

More than 100 Tajik farmers and entrepreneurs attended a recent investment conference in Dushanbe to learn what, and what not, to do when planting and managing an intensive apple orchard. The event was organized by FAO and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Speaking to a packed hall, international experts covered topics ranging from efficient production techniques and proper cold storage, to packaging, retail opportunities and payback periods.

Participants also visited Sitabr Agro, currently the only company in Tajikistan with both an intensive apple orchard and a modern storage facility for fruit.

The standing-room-only crowd indicated “huge demand among Tajik fruit producers for practical knowledge,” said Andriy Yarmak, an FAO economist.

The event was part of an FAO-EBRD project designed to improve the efficiency of fruit and vegetable supply chains in Tajikistan and Moldova – making quality fresh produce more accessible and affordable to consumers, while opening up marketing opportunities for farmers.

High returns
Fresh produce is a major source of income for rural households in Tajikistan. It also accounts for more than half of the country’s agricultural exports.

But at the same time, the country imports most of its apples, with prices skyrocketing during the winter months.

During an FAO/EBRD study tour to Moldova in late 2016, Tajik producers and exporters recognized their country’s enormous potential for intensive apple production.

The conditions for growing high-quality apples are ideal, and domestic demand for better-quality fresh produce is on the rise.

By investing in modern technologies, Tajik producers could see high returns and relatively short payback periods.

“Farmers can now earn US$ 5,000 to US$ 10,000 per hectare from traditional apple orchards, but they usually have to wait five or six years for the first harvest, and the quality is low,” Yarmak said. “With modern intensive orchards, they could earn up to US$ 60,000 per hectare, depending on how well the technology is managed, and harvest after two years – sometimes even after one year. The quality is almost uniformly high, increasing the fruit’s market value.”

Common mistakes
Many producers in Uzbekistan, Poland and Ukraine have transitioned from traditional to intensive apple production systems – providing valuable lessons for Tajikistan, which has only a few modern orchards.

Some of the common mistakes include planting varieties not adapted to the climate, using poor-quality nursery trees, or setting up orchards in areas without irrigation.

Cheap or homemade trellis systems can collapse once trees start to bear fruit, while planting too many varieties can affect marketing opportunities.

Likewise, not investing in specialists who know how to prune trees correctly and keep them free from pests and disease, or in proper storage and packaging, can harm the success of the business.

Closing the information gap
For Nasrullo Saifullaev, the information he took away from the investment conference came at just the right time. Having worked in the financial sector for years, he also dabbled in gardening. Seeing a good business opportunity, he decided earlier this year to invest in a 6-hectare intensive apple orchard.

“Before this conference, I desperately searched for information, mainly through Google,” he said. “The experts systematized the knowledge from the Internet and gave precise explanations on modern approaches to intensive farming.”

Umed Sharipov, from Katra LLC, added that it would be useful to set up a network “so this knowledge could become accessible to more farmers.”

FAO and the EBRD plan to build on these efforts and continue closing the information gap in Tajikistan – on new technologies, updated production, handling and packing techniques, and marketing options to help fresh produce farmers get better results.