Only about ten to twelve years ago, thousands of acres of land in Khulna would remain uncultivated after the harvesting of Aman rice, but growing of watermelon there did not cross the farmers' minds.
In course of time, the scenario has changed and a growing number of farmers in the district are cultivating watermelon on the unused land in the hope of making a quick buck.
Cultivation of watermelon is being encouraged in the district -- especially along the coast where land is sandy and relatively high in salinity -- as the popular summer fruit is more profitable than traditional crops such as rice or sesame.
This year 7,461 hectares of land in nine upazilas of the district have been brought under watermelon cultivation, up from 3,085 hectares last year, according to Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) in Khulna.
Last month, while visiting at least 20 villages -- including Khejuria, North Banishanta, Kalikabati, Harintana, Laudob, Kailashganj, Dhopadi, Dacope, West Bajua and East Bajua in Dacope upazila; Baranpara, Gangarampur, Bayarbhanga and Debitala in Batiaghata upazila; and Sharafpur and Bahir Akra in Dumuria upazila, this correspondent found farmers, their family members and hired workers in their hundreds tending watermelon saplings in swathes of crop fields.
Bimal Krishna Roy, from Pankhali viilage under Chalna municipality, said he cultivated watermelon for the first time; otherwise the land would lie fallow during this time of the year.
In Jhaltala beel area under Sharafpur union of Dumuria upazila, only one crop used to be cultivated each year. But when five farmers cultivated watermelon on five bighas of land there last year, the fruit is being grown on 150 acres this year.
Pankaj Kumar Gain, a farmer from the area, said the few people who planted watermelon there last year made a good profit.
Encouraged by their success, more than 100 farmers are growing watermelon in the area this year. Higher returns from a minimal investment and labour are drawing more farmers into watermelon farming, he also said.
Seasonal worker Rehena Begum, from Katianangla village of Batiaghata, said she used to be jobless around this time of the year, but thanks to watermelon farming, she has been making between Tk 350 and Tk 400 every day, at an hourly wage rate of Tk 45 to Tk 50.
Meanwhile, many farmers said they have been facing shortage in water for irrigation around this time of the year.
All water bodies in the area dried up, while tube wells were not functioning due to a fall in groundwater level, said Aroni Mondal, a farmer in Katianangla village.
According to the DAE, in Khulna division, the highest amount of watermelon is produced in Khulna district, where 1,20,000 tonnes of the fruit, worth Tk 250 crore, was produced on 2,000 hectares of land last year.
This year, watermelon is being cultivated on about 3,407 hectares of land in Khulna, with 65 to 70 percent of the total production being expected in Dacope upazila alone. More than 12,000 people are currently involved in the cultivation of the crop.
Mehedi Hasan, agriculture officer in Dacope upazila, said they encourage locals to cultivate watermelon, as it is more profitable than rice.
Dumuria Upazila Agriculture Officer Mosaddek Hossain said watermelon fields can be seen in many villages in the upazila, where the fruit has been cultivated on 450 acres of land.
A number of farmers said the government should set up cold storages in the area so excess production of watermelon can be preserved and exported overseas for more attractive returns.
DAE Deputy Director Hafizur Rahman said farmers in Khulna made good profits from watermelon last year.
Consequently, a wider area where only one crop used to be grown is now being brought under watermelon cultivation for the first time.
However, irrigation facilities in the area need to be improved for an increased production, he added.