Incessant rains being experienced across the country have resulted in the early maturity of tobacco, thereby leaving farmers with pressure to harvest and cure the crop before it loses quality.
Efforts to harvest and cure the golden leaf are being constrained by the unrelenting rains which have given farmers little time to reap their crop since the start of the year.
And for those who have managed to harvest, great pressure has been put on their barns as humid conditions are slowing the curing process.
The development has left farmers sweating over the possibility of huge losses as their crop is slowly losing quality and value while in the fields or barns.
“When you receive rains the way we are receiving it at the moment, you are likely to have early maturity of tobacco,” said Zimbabwe Farmers Union director Mr Paul Zakariya.
“So what then happens is that you have to harvest and cure the crop as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t lose any more quality. However, it is extremely difficult to do that at the moment because the rains have rarely given farmers enough time to harvest.
“Even if they do manage to harvest, they do not have infrastructure and resources to cope up with the increased speed of crop maturity as well as humidity which is slowing the curing process.”
Mr Zakariya played down the gravity of the problem saying only farmers in Mashonaland East were the most affected. He dismissed suggestions that the development could delay the opening of the marketing season saying much of the irrigated crop is almost ready for the auction floors.
Mr Zakariya used the irrigated crop as an example of why tobacco farming should be adequately mechanised to achieve optimum gains.
The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) communications manager, Mr Isheunesu Moyo, acknowledged the problems being brought by the incessant rains, emphasising that water logging and leaching had in some cases caused false ripening.
False ripening is when the crop appears to have matured due to leaching.
Mr Moyo was quick to add that it remains to be seen if the obtaining weather conditions will lead to the delayed opening of the selling season or not as this will only be determined after a national crop assessment has been done.
“We can only know of the dates of opening after the crop assessment has been done,” said Mr Moyo.
“This exercise will also help us know the actual impact the rains have had, but as far as our preparations are concerned, we will start early this year.”
Mr Moyo said to help farmers protect their crop, TIMB is conducting free training for farmers countrywide.
He added: “Farmers can organise themselves into groups in their communities and invite us, we can train them on how they can deal with water logging, leaching and false ripening.”
Writing in an online tobacco journal, agronomist Don Nicholson noted, “Tobacco doesn’t like ‘wet feet,’ or saturated roots. Because soil and most nutrients are made up of positively charged ions called cations, they end up repelling each other just like two of the same magnet poles. With an excessive amount of rain, the effect worsens.”
He said excess water ends up leaching much needed nutrients from the soil.
Consequently, the roots of the tobacco plant cannot reach down in the soil far enough to pick up the remaining nutrients, and plants are left malnourished.
“When plants are starved for nutrients, they become weak and vulnerable to disease. Even with disease-resistant varieties of seed, plants are not immune to disease, especially in a fragile state,” Nicholson said.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president, Mr Wonder Chabikwa said, “Considering the amount of rainfall that has been experienced, farmers need to be highly observant and skillfully manage their crops. However, farmers may reduce the curing pressure by applying calcium nitrate.”
Tobacco marketing season preparations are at an advanced stage and TIMB has said floors will open early this year.
At the moment, the TIMB is running mock electronic sales, an electronic marketing system which will be used this year to curb corruption and increase efficiency.
Tobacco Auction Floors, Premier Tobacco Auction Floors and Tobacco Sales Floors are some of the companies that have already been awarded electronic marketing licenses. About 19 more independent contractors have also been licensed to buy the crop.
The preparations were put in place to ensure the early start of the marketing season.
The number of farmers who have registered for the 2016/17 season has increased by 16 percent from the 70 462 who had registered during the same period last year, to 81 548.
Farmers have also planted 107 035 hectares of tobacco compared to 95 160 ha last year.
Meanwhile, farmer organisations have advised farmers to be on high alert of various tobacco pests that are associated with high rainfall. The Tobacco Research Board (TRB) has already warned of a threat posed by tuta absoluta, a new invasive and highly destructive pest, to the tobacco industry.
In an alert, TRB said tuta absoluta, originating from South America, recently invaded Zimbabwe and current reports indicate high levels of damage in tomato.
The pest is fast spreading in Zimbabwe and has already caused heavy losses in tomato.
However, in the absence of its primary host, the tomato, tuta absoluta is known to attack closely related crops such as tobacco, potato and pepper.
Zimbabwe is already battling another invasive pest, the fall armyworm, which has invaded maize fields across the country and can also attack tobacco in extreme cases.
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