Me, my sunflowers and the climate crisis: A farmer’s diary

May 28, 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In coastal Bangladesh, extreme levels of salinity in the soil is rendering thousands of hectares of farmland barren for most of the year. Forcing millions of farmers to give up farming because of this slow-onset impact of the climate crisis. But all is not lost yet as farmers find hope to adapt to climate change is an unassuming crop – sunflowers. Read the first-person account of one such farmer who is tackling the climate crisis with a field full of smiling sunflowers

We have a new name for salt. We call it fire dust.
Why do we call it fire dust?
I’ll tell you everything, but first let’s talk about me.

I farm and live by the coast in Patuakhali, in a remote corner of southwest Bangladesh. Here, life used to have all six seasons play out in all their glory. Now, it has reduced to three – a summer that sucks the life out of the land, a monsoon that punishes more with cyclones and floods than replenishing the earth and a dry winter that kills even the hardiest of crops – mung beans.

And then, there is salt. Yes, I am talking about that essential seasoning craved by every human being. When the extreme tidal bores come in, accompanied with cyclones, our farmlands get flooded with saltwater from the sea.

Cyclones may torment our lives for a couple of days, But they leave behind this salt brine from the sea into our fields which stays there for months. That stagnant water evaporates, seeps into the ground, eventually there’s no water left but a layer of flaky white salt covering the whole earth like a tattered and battered white bed-sheet.

Nothing grows on salt and I know nothing other than growing crops.

We say salt burns the soil as if it’s the reincarnation of fire.

When I tried planting rice in saline soil, rice shoots soon turned yellow, eventually drying off, resembling parched grass. I tried my luck with watermelons but it’s one thirsty crop and irrigating costs a lot of money, BDT 3300 taka (USD 30) per acre, to be exact.

I heard people call my situation, the climate crisis. But who created this crisis? And why am I having to pay for this crisis that I didn’t create?

At times, these thoughts circle over my head. It would have been much easier if thoughts satisfied hunger but as it doesn’t, I return to my fields. Trying out new things, to keep growing crops, to keep food on my table.

Smiling sunflowers 

I still remember the first time I heard about farming sunflowers. I had a lot of questions.

What do I do with it? How do I process the seeds? Most importantly, will it grow in these saline soil?

Farmers stand by rows of sunflowers in full-bloom which are being grown in lands that remained fallow in the dry seasons at Kolapa in Patuakhali, southwestern Bangladesh. Photo credit: Kazuki Kunimoto © BRAC 2023

When BRAC staff came and talked to us about farming sunflower seeds, they told us that this variety of sunflower, which is called Hysun 33, is salt-tolerant. We listened to them and took training from their agriculturalists and planted sunflowers in my fields.

Like every other time, I gave this crop my everything. But this time, the effort was compounded by the excitement of trying something new.

Grow they did. I hadn’t seen any crop grow so vigorously in our saline fields. Sunflower seedlings seemed so healthy that it seemed as if they were happily munching on the salt in the soil.

Soon the blossoms started and I had my fingers crossed. I was hoping for one flower per plant, because any more would lead to smaller flowers leading to smaller sunflower seeds and in the end, a much smaller harvest.

By the turn of the second month, nearly all the flowers had blossomed. My sunflowers’ smiles were as big as the sun itself. Watching them smile puts one on me. I forgot the last time I smiled looking at my harvest.

Maybe it’s the yellow of the sunflower that catches the eye of someone coming from the outside but for the farmers, it’s the black circle in the middle that makes them smile. Bigger the circle, the higher the yield of sunflower oil. © BRAC 2023

I am expecting nearly 500 kilograms of sunflower seeds per acre. Comparing the market price of the amount of sunflower seeds I produced to that of mung beans I could produce in an acre, I can make nearly five times as much with sunflower seeds. More importantly, sunflowers for me mean that I won’t have to buy expensive vegetable oil from the market for the rest of the year, its stalks can be used as firewood in our kitchen and its husk can be fed to cattles. Tell me, what more could I expect from one crop?

Becoming a water engineer

As much I loved my land, the constant heartbreak of failed crops had worn me down. But watching sunflowers smile has rekindled a long cherished plan of mine.

I wanted to engineer a cheaper way of irrigating our crops. The solution was always right before my eyes. We have a two-kilometre long canal that zigzags through our fields and drains into the sea. Years of no maintenance had filled up the canal with silt from the fields. If we could dig up the canal again and dam it up, we can hold enough rainwater to irrigate our crops in the dry season, that too for pennies.

Farmers of our village are interested in this plan and now this is my next goal. To get my very first water-engineering project up and running. A farmer’s water engineering plans.

BRAC Climate Change Programme’s (CCP) integrated approach addresses climate change impacts, using adaptation measures, through BRAC’s development initiatives. CCP’s work protects resources, improves quality of life, and builds awareness about the environment in communities in rural and urban settings. CCP provides people with access to the tools and knowledge to adapt and respond to adverse climatic impacts and adopt sustainable practises to combat impending climatic impacts.

Ashim Shikari is a farmer from Patuakhali in Bangladesh who is working with BRAC’s Climate Change programme.

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