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PM: ‘Please, no more crown rot, … no more scruffy fruit’BANANA WARNING

PM: ‘Please, no more crown rot, … no more scruffy fruit’BANANA WARNING

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Even though the shipment of bananas from this country continued uninterrupted this week, officials are pleading with banana farmers to do everything in their power to ensure the quality of fruit being exported from this country improves.

On Sunday, November 13, during a radio discussion programme on WE FM, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told farmers that after 50 years in the banana industry, we should not be sending defective fruit to the market.

“Please, no more crown rot, no more latex stain, no more scruffy fruit. Let’s get this thing in all the circumstances going,” he said, reminding the beleaguered farmers that they no longer have protection in the market place in Europe.

“Please don’t cut off your nose and spoil your face by putting bad fruit in the box,” he added.

Yesterday, Monday, the MV Timor Stream, of the Geest Line, docked at Port Kingstown, and took away 1,100 boxes or 21 tonnes of the commodity which in its hey day was referred to as “green gold”.

Chief Agricultural Officer Reuben Robertson, in an interview with SEARCHLIGHT on Sunday, said the Ministry of Agriculture is pulling out all the stops in an effort to address quality issues which have resulted in bananas from this country receiving consistently low quality scores over the last few months.

Last week, the bananas shipped from SVG received a quality score of 66 per cent, far lower than the minimum acceptable score of 85 per cent, Robertson disclosed.

He said that this past Sunday, harvest day, Agricultural Extension officers were out in the fields, supervising all farmers who were shipping bananas, “to make sure they do things right.”

And from yesterday, Monday, November 14, extension officers will begin a field programme, in which they will work with farmers throughout the life cycle of the crop.

According to Robertson, the educational programme will seek to retrain farmers in the whole management of the crop.

“Quality really starts from the time the sucker is put in the ground; the whole management of the plant, ensure it is given proper nutrients; bunch care – when it is deflowered; put on the sleeves and ribbons at the right time; harvest management – when harvested, dipped in fungicide, how handled, etc.,” Robertson said.

He also disclosed that a banana stakeholders consultative committee, involving all banana stakeholders was set up last week. The committee, which will meet once a week, has been set up to look at all aspects of banana production, including input supply, disease control, chemical requirements, responsibilities, and follow up.

While accepting full responsibility, on behalf of the Government, for the spread of the Black Sigatoka disease, which causes bananas to ripe prematurely, Robertson said that this mistake will not be made again.

“Government has taken the responsibility for pest and disease; we mucked up, we admitted that we mucked up, but we not going to muck up again. So, the farmers need now to do their part, the backyard gardeners and the plantain farmers, everybody needs to do their part.”

Robertson, the government’s chief technical agricultural officer, said that some of defects which cause our bananas to have such a low quality score come from sources other than the Black Sigatoka disease, and have to do with the farmers’ cultural practices,

The Black Sigatoka and the Yellow Sigatoka, are known as Leaf Spot Disease, cause bananas to ripen before they reach full maturity. This, however, is not the only reason why 13 per cent of the bananas shipped from this country have the defect classified as “ripe and turning”. Robertson said if the farmer harvests fruit that is overgrade, or more mature than recommended for shipment, the fruit may ripen before it gets to the market in Europe.

Other defects which have been plaguing our banana exports include crown rot (8%), scruffy (3%), scars (3%), bruises (1%), and latex staining (1 – 3%), Robertson said.

He said a second cycle of spraying, essential in the control of the Black Sigatoka disease will begin tomorrow, Wednesday, November 16, with another to take place at the end of December. He, however, asserted that spraying is only one component of the regimen needed to bring the disease under control.

He said a rigorous management programme, which includes keeping weeds down, cutting off infected leaves, fertilizing the crop adequately and on time, so that the plant has adequate nutrition to fight off infections, proper spacing and drainage of the crop, are all important in keeping the disease under control.

He also called on backyard gardeners and plantain farmers to do their part, as “some of them have plants which need to be chopped down and cleaned up.”

The calls for special attention to be paid to banana quality have come on the heels of a strongly worded letter from Winfresh, the company which markets bananas from the Windward Islands in Europe. The letter, dated November 8, 2011, was written by Winfresh’s CEO Bernard Cornibert and was addressed to Henry Keizer, the General Manager of WINFARM Investment Company Limited, the company which exports local bananas.

In his letter, Cornibert proposes suspending delivery of this country’s bananas to Winfresh effective Load Week 46 (this week), until the bananas “meet market requirements, particularly in respect of product quality, before the resumption of exports.”

The contents of the letter were made public on Thursday, November 10, by Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace, who on radio stated that shipment of bananas from St. Vincent had been suspended for the remainder of the year.

This claim was quickly denied by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who less than two hours later, also on radio, read an email from Cornibert dated November 10 at 12:06 p.m., which said that Winfresh will continue to receive bananas as normal, and payment for the bananas would be on a firm contractual basis. The email also said that the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines “undertakes to work with the local banana industry to do everything possible to resolve the fruit quality problems as swiftly as possible.”

The email also said that the situation will be reviewed in the next few weeks to determine if and what further actions are necessary.

Cornibert, however, in an interview on Friday with Kenton Chance of I-Witness News, said his letter of November 8 to Keizer was not the first one he had written in that regard.

“I can show you emails suggesting to them why don’t you just suspend the shipment, but they (WINFARM) want to continue.

“But the only reason they want to continue is because they’re not bearing the cost. If they were bearing the cost they would have stopped it. It is plain silly; it doesn’t make economic sense,” Cornibert told I-Witness News.

He, however, said that the letter to Keizer was a suggestion rather than a demand that this country suspend banana exports to the United Kingdom until fruit quality improves, the I-Witness News story said.

During Sunday’s radio programme, Prime Minister Gonsalves, however, stated that the mandate, of Winfresh is not just to make profit.

“Winfresh understands that it has a mandate which is very different than a normal profit making organization. Winfresh has to consider partnering with all of us to come out of special problems which we may have. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with the banana industry has a special problem coming out of Tomas and Black Sigatoka, and they have to work with us,” he said.

“Farmers have gone through a difficult period, and they have to ship what they have,” the Prime Minister said.

In October 2010, 98 per cent of the banana plants here were destroyed by Hurricane Tomas. A few months ago, just when many of the replanted bananas were reaching full maturity, the Black Sigatoka disease flared up, out of control, because the fields were not sprayed with fungicide, a responsibility of the government.

Approximately 416 acres, or approximately 18 per cent of the 2,245 acres of bananas in this country are affected by Black Sigatoka. The 18 per cent however represents 60 – 70% of the plants producing fruit for export right now.

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