Today, Godkhali is the source of 70 per cent of the flowers sold throughout the country
Where flowers bloom, so does hope, Lady Bird Johnson, a former First Lady of the US, once said -- and a quote that comes to mind if one travels to Jhikargacha and Sharsha upazila of Jessore.
Flowers as far as the eye can see! And the roses, gladioli, tuberoses, gerbera, marigolds, cosmos, daisy gipsies, dahlias and chrysanthemums are not just a source of splendour but also a means through which tens of hundreds of farmers in the region, particularly women, are changing their lives for the better.
Previously, the land, which is about 25 kilometres away from Jessore city, used to be dedicated to paddy farming.
But around the 90s, the locals shifted to flower cultivation, encouraged by the ever-higher prices they were receiving for their blooms from the market.
Today, Godkhali is the source of 70 per cent of the flowers sold throughout the country.
But the pandemic and the cyclone Amphan left the flourishing industry withering.
So much that farmers had to borrow money to get by, says one Fayaz, a flower wholesaler at the Godkhali market.
“We see some flickers of recovery in the near future,” he said while decorating his shop with his mother early in the morning on a Friday towards the end of February.
As the day wears on, the hustle and bustle of a village market take over, with middlemen haggling with the wholesalers and wholesalers bargaining with the farmers.
“If the price is high -- joy is there. If the price is low -- we get upset,” he says.
Had we been there a couple of weeks ago, in time for Pahela Falgun and Valentine’s Day, there would have been an explosion of flowers, in the market and the surrounding areas.
Nothing makes the farmers as busy as they are during the first three weeks of February.
It is the peak time for sales. The faces here then become coloured with the sheer expectation of a handsome return from the year’s toil.
The anticipation was greater this year as normalcy was returning to the country after a year of pandemic, which left the world in a state of complete and utter chaos.
Seeing our curiosity, Fayaz then passed us the numbers of two well-known and successful flower farmers in the locality. Their names were Ismail Hossain and Azizul Sarder.
“Actually, during the lockdown, we couldn’t sell any flowers. But the plants were alive,” said Hossain, the owner of Shishir Nursery.
The flowers were blooming -- completely oblivious to the topsy-turvy state of the world.
“There was hope that Covid will go away soon and we would still be able to sell the flowers. But cyclone Amphan simply battered us. Sheds of flowers were severely destroyed. Plants were uprooted in the storm. We lost almost everything,” he said.
Hossain is afraid that it will take five years to recover the losses inflicted by the twin events of 2020, even though the government has disbursed relief funds through banks to affected farmers.
What also lifted our spirit during our trip to the land of flowers was the sight of hundreds of women plucking flowers and engaged in other related jobs in the fields.
Their contribution to the success of Godkhali is significant.
If there are 10 workers, half would be women, said Sarder, who cultivates flowers on six bighas of land.
But there is an inequality when it comes to earning: if a man gets Tk 400 per day, a woman earns Tk 300.
If a woman works very hard during the day, she can earn as much as Tk 1,000, said Sarder, also the owner of Arif Nursery.
Sarder though says the farmers' income has declined from the heydays of 2008-2011 thanks to the arrival of Chinese plastic flowers.
As we were conversing with Sarder, a euphony of a folk song caught our attention.
Turns out it was one of the workers from the adjacent field, Maruf.
Maruf earns Tk 400 a day and he belts out folk songs out in the open field as a release.
We learnt that winter is the best time to produce the best quality of flowers due to the climate advantage.
During summer, the quality of flowers declines -- a problem farmers in our neighbouring country India get around by using polyhouse, which is a house or a structure made of translucent material like glass or polyethylene where the plants grow and develop under controlled climatic conditions.
Last year, the government gifted a polyshed by spending Tk 21 lakh on 1 bigha land, according to Hossain.
Six farmers were selected based on their record.
“This is a step forward in ensuring quality flower farming throughout the year,” Hossain said.
Another piece of technology that has lifted the farmers’ morale in the area is the cold storage, built at a cost of Tk 19 crore.
It is the country’s first flower processing centre, where modern technology would be used to package and grade the flowers.
The farmers will receive proper training and a modern cooling chamber that will reserve the packaged flowers for future sale.
But it is the mobile penetration that has been of the biggest help to farmers as it eliminated the need for middlemen.
“Our main market is in Dhaka and Chittagong. We directly contact the wholesalers, take advance and ship the flowers,” Sardar said.
Typically, middlemen keep a 5-10 per cent cut.
“But there is always a chance that we are quoted a lower price when the actual price is much higher in the capital. Selling directly has been a great experience as we used to live in fear that we would never get our money as the local middlemen tend to be people of influence in the locality.”
But for further development of the sector, Sardar, who has been in flower farming since the 1990s, called for a permanent sales and distribution spot for flowers in Dhaka like Karwan Bazar serves for fruit and vegetable farmers for further development of the sector.
And Dhaka’s Shahbag, believed to be the hub of flowers,does not meet the need for a permanent marketplace, while the bazaar in Godkhali, which is just 8 decimals of land, is too small.
Abdur Rahim, president of the Bangladesh Flowers Society, has been relentlessly trying to establish a permanent marketplace, Sarder says.
“I can see a vacuum of leadership in taking this industry forward in a few years,” said Mohammad Faisal Haq, senior account manager at the research firm Kantar MRB Bangladesh, and my fellow traveller.
As the industry is getting consolidated with some big investors gradually, the power shift might not be a good sign for the ordinary farmers here even though they have been growing very high-quality flowers.
The floriculture industry needs to focus on export to level up, according to Faisal.
And to do so, farmers need to understand the entire value chain of the business from seeding to exporting. Therefore, both the government and the non-government agencies need to come forward to educate them.
“One of the farmers was sharing that they tried lily farming but the result was not good. When I asked him about the reason, he seemed to have no knowledge of lily farming.”
Hence, farmers need to be well-trained to grow a variety of flowers across the seasons and with knowledge of both forward and backward market linkage, Haq added.
The author is the group chief marketing officer of IDLC Finance