by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
Our sugar beet feasibility study in Pakistan took place in 1965 and 1966 and the problems presented were quite intriguing. Over there, full time, was Nicholas Craze, a young agricultural consultant from Wye College in Kent, aided and abetted from time to time by another young graduate, Richard Constanduros. An unusual name, but his aunt, Mabel Constanduros, had been a very well-known broadcaster during the war years, it therefore had a familiar ring. They had to keep the job moving along, while I did the planning and showed them how to handle sugar beet trials, going out on several relatively short trips. We were equipped with an Austin Gipsy, which was an alternative to a Land Rover at the time.
Our reconnaissance had almost fixed the trial locations and they were finalised with the aid of local agricultural agents, often on state-owned experimental farms. They were mostly in the Punjab, at Lyallpur, Sialkot and Gujrunwala, all not so very far from Lahore. The outlying trial was in Swat. Sugar beet was an entirely unfamiliar crop to them all, indeed when the trials were harvested the farm managers had no idea what to do with the beet. At Gujrunwala we suggested feeding the roots to cattle, but were told that, never having seen beet before, they would not know what to do with them. So we cornered some cattle and more or less force fed them with slices of beet. They soon learnt. At Sialkot it was even more difficult and we finally got exasperated and advised that they should “chuck them at the Indians”. The Kashmiri border was only four or five miles away and by then war was about to break out. Beet would have been a novel form of projectile. Biological warfare, I suppose.
As mentioned previously, sowing clearly had to be in the autumn so that harvesting could be completed before temperatures got impossibly high. We tried a range of dates. October proved to be the best. Autumn sowing in Europe would have led to bolting following the cool winter, so some highly bolting-resistant material was included. We need not have been concerned about that, for the high temperatures in the following year cancelled any idea the plants might have had about going to seed. We included some American varieties. Through most of the harvest period the European varieties were better, but when it got very hot indeed, the American material stood the strain better and came out on top. The American varieties had been bred in a climate which included hot summers and not surprisingly they showed better heat tolerance. We got some wonderful yields, though, among the highest anywhere in the world.
At one site we sowed after a rice harvest, getting two crops within a twelve-month period. It was difficult, for the heavy, puddled soil after paddy rice was almost impossible to work into a good seedbed for beet. Even then, though, we got a yield of 15 tons per acre, which is still good. So the potential was there.
This work led to many interesting experiences. We often had to drive out of Lahore on the Grand Trunk Road, which the British had built right across India from the Afghan border to Calcutta. We did not use the buses, but saw plenty. They were privately owned, one owner one bus, and many looked very well worn. The trick was to drive quite madly to pick up passengers ahead of the competition. The leading bus would ignore small groups of waiting passengers in the hope of getting more later on, and there was much passing and repassing and accidents too. We saw one place where two buses travelling opposite ways had collided with a glancing blow and neatly taken a complete side out of each other.
Lyallpur had a flourishing university and there I met N.D. Yusuf, whom I had met and very much liked in Cambridge. He arranged an al fresco lunch for me and the vice-chancellor. They decided to pull my leg by sending out to the market place for betel leaves, which they chewed so that their mouths, lips and teeth turned bright red. What should I do? At the last moment they saved me from embarrassment by saying that the leaves were far from hygienic and that as I was unlikely to have the bug-resistance which they had acquired, I had better not join them. They told me that the man in the market place who supplied the leaves wrapped them in sheets of paper which he sat on so that they would not blow away! On another occasion at Lyallpur I was asked to talk about sugar beet to the post-graduate students. We sat in a circle under a spreading tree and I was immediately surprised to be addressed in Welsh. The student had done his initial degree in Bangor and knew that I had been there! A surprise was to learn that I was regarded as an authority on Punjabi wheats, on the very slender ground that I had published a paper on Triticum sphaerococcum, a round-grained species that is native to the area.
In Lyallpur and indeed everywhere else, the people we met were very friendly. If there was a fault it was that everybody who had acquired a degree seemed also to acquire a social status which forebade them to go out into the fields. They seemed to spend their lives in an office on their particular patch of carpet, avoiding infra dig things like getting muddy boots.
Among the mass of the population another matter arose. Jobs were scarce, poorly paid but very precious. If ‘sahib’ went into the field and got physically involved with the job, he was suspect because he could be thought to be depriving some very poor person of work. This was when we went to harvest our Lyallpur trial. I was there to guide Nicholas, who had not done it before. We were on the trial site early in the morning and had been promised a gang of workers. They had not arrived, but soon we saw a bedraggled line of men approaching us in grubby white dhotis and carrying something. As they got nearer we saw that they had two armchairs and a box. The box proved to be full of bottles of Coca-Cola. The ‘sahibs’ were not expected to do anything other than issue orders while sitting in state, sipping ‘Coke’. However, in this case the only way of showing the men what was needed was to ‘muck in’ and show by example, especially as our Urdu vocabulary totalled about twelve words.
In most respects, trial harvest was a matter of raising the beet with some kind of single furrow plough behind an ox, knocking and scraping them as free as possible from soil and counting and weighing them. But then we had to measure sugar content. This was a challenge. Our Austin Gipsy had a power take-off to which we hitched the Keil boring rasp which I had discovered in use when I first went to Maldon. This gave us a bulk sample of pulp representative of the beets of each plot. Nicholas had been into town early that morning to buy ‘dry ice’, solid carbon dioxide, and we had insulated boxes. We put our samples in the boxes where they would soon freeze and they were taken no less than 400 miles to the nearest sugar factory for analysis.
The Punjab is not the most scenic part of the world, indeed most of it is very, very flat and some of it is pretty, well, a salt desert. Even on the better bits it was sometimes necessary to put the soil up into ridge and furrow and to sow on the sides of the ridge a little below the top. This was because, in drying out in the sun, salt would be carried up to the top of the ridge to form a white crest.
There were some monumental buildings like the tomb of the Mogul emperor Jehangir and there were attractive stretches of road lined with shady casuarina trees, or with trees from which hung dozens of weaver birds’ nests. For real scenery, however, one had to move on.
Towards the end of the first trial year, war threatened and many army vehicles were about, often with loads of munitions in boxes labelled “A Gift from the American People” and decorated with the Stars and Stripes. No doubt there was similar traffic on the Indian side of the frontier. The war was over before our second year’s sowing, but it gave a very unreal feeling to the project, for the result of the hostilities was to put an end to all hope of building more sugar factories as foreign grants and credits dried up. Our trial at Sialkot was in what proved to be a battle area.
We went on to Swat and my fondest memories are of the second year. We had established trial locations and had got to know quite a few of the friendly local people. One Saturday we took the day off for a trip to the north end of the valley in our Austin Gipsy: Nicholas Craze and I and also Bill Johnson, who had basically come out for a trip. The scenery is spectacular, the valley with narrow terraces of cropped land hanging on the lower slopes of rugged mountains, and behind them the towering, snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush. When we started it was well into summer, but as we drove higher and higher up the valley it was soon late spring and then early spring and the edge of the melting snow.
Landslips are not uncommon in such country and we encountered one. In fact it had nearly been cleared up and we did not have to wait long before we could get through. The system was interesting. The social system was essentially feudal. All the local people were bound to give a number of days of free labour to the state and when something like a road blockage occurred they turned out in masses to put the matter right. They were paid a rupee a day for refreshments.
Nicholas took care of the second year’s sowing and I went there when the crop was well established. On the irrigated valley bottom there had been a problem, for the channels followed the contours and were gently curved. Our trial plots were sown in rectangular array, leaving crescent-shaped gaps between their straight sides and the channels. When we returned in the early summer, all these odd bits of land were filled with flowering opium poppies. Our unplanned contribution to the narcotics industry.
On one occasion we were visiting a trial when a thunderstorm approached and we looked like getting a real soaking. We were invited to take shelter in the little near-by village before the storm broke. We took a footpath, past the tiny mosque which we were invited to see, for they were very proud of it. The fact that we were infidels was quite overlooked. Then we walked on, past muck-heaps in which poultry were scratching around, into a little square where there was a guest house with a couple of charpoy beds and a canopied porch where we were seated in full gaze of the entire population (the men and children in the square, the women peeping round corners). Within minutes we were brought tea in a beautiful tea service, obviously a communal treasure. We were also brought eggs, not improved by the presence of bloody veins, but we could not possibly be churlish enough not to eat them. Then a local youth arrived carrying a catapult in one hand and several brightly coloured finches tied together by the neck. The junior member of our party ought to have had more sense. He said, “Can you eat them”? Within fifteen minutes they were skinned and on our plates.
At the end of our project Nicholas and I sought audience of the Wali again. He was polite and interested but his manner indicated that he wanted to say goodbye with the utmost despatch. We learnt why. The war being over the ruler of Pakistan, Ayub Khan, was that week on the rounds of the frontier states, giving out medals to the deserving for the valour they had displayed in the national cause. Our Wali had received a distinctly third class award and was upset. In fact he was busy sacking many of his senior staff. His plight was even worse because he had married a daughter of Ayub Khan and should have upheld the family honour.
What had happened may not be found in the military history books, so deserves to be told. The steep valleys of Swat are watched over by stone forts with slits in the walls, manned by expert marksmen well able to pick off any unwanted intruders. Now, though, they were called out on a foreign war. They were loaded into army trucks, driven over the Malakand Pass for the first time in their lives and were full of exuberance. So much so that when they passed down the Mall in Rawalpindi they shot out all the streetlights just for fun. They ended up in camp not far from Sialkot, where one of our trials was located. After a day or two it started to thunder, or so they thought. The thunder sounded a bit odd and they finally realised that it was artillery fire. Some aircraft flew over too, dropping things. This was clearly utterly unfair, not their kind of war at all, so they got back into their trucks and drove home. Hence the Wali’s third class gong!
Nicholas with a new assistant (he who said, “Can you eat them?”) was left to complete the season and bring back the data to me for analysis. Bill Johnson and I flew down to Karachi and stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel, owned by a consortium of prestigious Western companies. Very upper crust, very hygienic I thought. It was there that I picked up a dose of a virulent tummy bug that I found quite gruesome. I was still looking pretty green when I had to board the P.I.A. flight for London via Tehran, Moscow and Frankfurt.
This was the only time that I saw anything of Soviet Russia. It was interesting to fly over the Caspian Sea and the vast expanse of the Steppes to Moscow International Airport. There we went ‘ashore’ for about an hour and a half, having surrendered our passport to a very large and fierce-looking woman soldier at the top of the steps, receiving a little slip of paper in return. It was not so different from other transit lounges except that we had a free copy of the day’s Pravda and a bound book of the life of Lenin in a language of our choice. The striking thing was the isolation. Domestic airports were doubtless very busy, but in this major international airport only one plane left (for Copenhagen) in the 1½ hours and none arrived. It was very different indeed in Frankfurt from Soviet Russia.