When the farmer has to navigate impact of drought on tobacco quality

Obert Chifamba-Agri-Insight

It will not be business as usual for the majority of dry land tobacco farmers when it comes to curing this year’s golden leaf, as they have to be gentler in handling it than at any other time, thanks to the harsh effects of the drought.

This year’s tobacco leaf will be a special case after being raised under difficult conditions punctuated by dry spells whose harsh effects on its quality will not go unnoticed.

And while it is abundantly clear that the tobacco farmer is one of the busiest and most anxious in the agriculture industry, it is a fact that this season will go down in history as one of the most difficult even for those who will manage to score above decent yields. 

The fact that the opening of the marketing season slated for March 13 is evidently fast approaching has made it even more precarious for the farmers who have to contend with repaying loans, pay labour and meet other critical socio-economic obligations.

Essentially, this requires farmers to make the most of whatever they will harvest from their fields, which starts from the way they handle the crop from the reaping stage to the point it is sold. 

This will be a make or break period for the farmers who have to make sure the crop earns respectable grades at the floors and ultimately good prices.

And armed with the knowledge that most tobacco marketing seasons have in recent times been littered with numerous allegations and suspicions of underhand dealings at almost every spot along the tobacco value chain, the farmers’ high anxiety levels at the moment can easily be forgiven. 

Their worries are natural and genuine.

Apart from this, they also have to contend with the possibility of facing the bane of price ceilings that has easily become a feature of all seasons even when the quality of the leaf suggests otherwise.

Of course farmers may manage to salvage some decent yields here and there, but the painful truth is that in terms of quality there will be a big challenge that will require them to go out of their way and tend the leaf during the curing stage as if they are tending a new-born baby.

 A tobacco crop produced under stressful conditions is fragile in terms of quality and therefore liable to getting further spoilt at the slightest opportunity that presents itself during curing. 

Under normal circumstances, the eventual quality of the tobacco leaf is dependent to a large extent on the success of the production process and the attention given during harvesting and curing.

It is natural for the leaf to present various lesions that are not necessarily a result of the action of micro-organisms but may due to different reasons, for instance, the poor quality of leaves at harvesting. 

This may be due to natural challenges emanating from bad weather such as droughts and floods, while bad agronomic practices may also rear their ugly head.

It is not surprising that Kutsaga Research recently warned farmers against treating this tobacco growing season like any other term but should adopt the appropriate maintenance and handling practices necessary under hostile environmental challenges. 

This should have started at the soil preparation stages and maintained up to reaping.

Farmers need to pay meticulous attention to detail in everything they do to ensure their crop takes minimal battering from drought.

It also means that they have to do everything in their capacity to ensure the available soil moisture is not wasted while the crop has proper nutrition throughout the growing season for a robust development. 

At the point of harvesting, farmers have to make sure they reap fully-matured leaves at their optimal size to come out with quality cured leaves.

They obviously have to slow down the drying process in the early phase of the curing process and give the crop more time to cure, which results in better colour development. 

Full article on: www.herald.co.zw

They also need to utilise the field wilt time to enable them to take more time into the curing barn while in areas where the dry weather resulted in stunted growth in the crop, it may become necessary to pack the crop tighter than normal in the barn.

In some cases, they even need to place sticks as close as 10 or 13cm apart to reduce airflow through the crop thereby slowing the drying process.

When the average daily humidity is at least 75 percent, growers should consider closing the barn doors and vents during the heat of the day even with relatively green tobacco in the barn. 

After that they need to closely monitor the closed barns (especially those with green tobacco) closely and make sure they check them at least once a day, looking and smelling for signs of rot setting in. 

They should open and flush the barn for a few days at the first sign of a house burn.

If the barn has no vent doors or sides in some cases, growers may consider covering the openings with plastic or house wrap to slow and minimise drying. 

As the tobacco progresses through yellowing, growers may need to close barns for longer periods of time.

The long and short of my argument is that farmers need to manage temperature and humidity levels with precision during curing, as failure to do so can result in undesirable leaf characteristics such as dark colouration and diminished lustre. By implementing gradual temperature increases and optimising ventilation, farmers can safeguard leaf quality and maximise market appeal, advises Kutsaga.

Prior to the harvesting process it is also important for farmers to conduct leaf ripening tests to gauge starch content and ensure optimal sugar conversion during curing, as a way of further enhancing leaf quality. 

This will give the farmer a hint at the strategic approach to use when tailoring his curing techniques to suit the unique attributes of drought-affected tobacco, fostering superior leaf characteristics and enhancing market performance.

Whatever farmers do, they have to carefully work on the leaf paying close attention to the potential negative effects of the delayed onset of the rains and the subsequent drought on the quality of the leaves.

They have to ensure that the cured product meets the market’s demands on quality so that they at least salvage some significant revenue.

It is a fact that water stress has a critical impact on plant physiology and when plants’ water uptake and transpiration are imbalanced, it leads to drought stress. 

Drought reduces nitrogen uptake and growers must adopt appropriate management practices to achieve the desired cured leaf quality.

 Such harsh conditions leave tobacco leaves with certain distinct characteristics such as being thin, dark green, developing closed stomata and close-grained and small unexpanded leaves.

This obviously requires farmers to tailor-make the curing process has to be tailor-made for such leaves. It becomes very important to manage the temperature and humidity appropriately during the curing process to ensure good leaf quality.

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