KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Vincentian farmers, including citizens with backyard gardens, are being encouraged to support “Operation Cutback”, aimed at ridding the country of the 350 acres of black sigatoka infected banana and plantain plants.
Minster of Agriculture Saboto Caesar, who has been in that position for three weeks, said on radio on Monday that he has already seen inoculum levels fall from 5.5 to to 4.5, since the operation began two weeks ago.
Inoculum, at its highest, is at Level 10 and agricultural officials are hoping to reduce it to Level 2 “to be safe for us to replant” bananas.
He said that once a banana plant has six or more leaves turning black — “beyond the potential to be retrieved”, the famer should cut down the plant. Otherwise, he said, the fruit would be extremely small, of very poor quality, and inedible.
“The judgement call is, do I look at the standing plant and say ‘I believe it is going to shoot (flower) in the future and I … don’t want to cut it down because it is my source of income’,” Caesar said.
“The point is, once you receive instructions from the Ministry of Agriculture, they have the scientific data, they have done the scientific analysis, they are the scientific experts, the plant is not worth keeping. It is actually causing more harm than good because these are sources of the inoculum,” he said.
Caesar said that while most farmers are cooperating, some are asking to be compensated while others continue to blame government inaction last year for the spread of black sigatoka.
“What I want to say this morning to all farmers is that we have to embark and basically get on board with Operation Cutback. Once you have been advised by the Banana Unit, by the extension officers, that a particular field cannot return to a state of production, I am asking you, as the Minister of Agriculture, to cut back your field. And when I say cutback, let me be very frank, to cut down your field,” he said.
He said that agriculture officials would be seeking the assistance of the Ministry of Health to ensure that citizens comply, adding that farmers who resist Operation Cutback will be served a notice.
“But … I really don’t want it to get to the stage where notices are being served,” he said, adding, “… most farmers are actually buying in to the cut back process.”
Caesar said that he has been liaising with former agriculture minister, Housing Minister Montgomery Daniel, who was head of the ministry last year, when agriculture officials failed to spray against black sigatoka.
Caesar, a former tourism minister, said that banana is going to play a critical role because it has a secure market both extra-regionally and regionally, notwithstanding competition from Guyana and Suriname.
He said that the on-going efforts are part of the exercise to rebuild the industry after the drought and Hurricane Tomas in 2010, and flash floods, black sigatoka and moko diseases last year.
“It is not going to be an easy task but I am asking all farmers to be hopeful,” Caesar said.
He said that farmers who replanted their fields after Hurricane Tomas, which destroyed 98 per cent of banana plants, were at point where their bananas were fruiting and got discouraged after the black sigatoka crisis last year. Many of them, he said, abandoned their field.
He said that it is important that while agriculture officials spray against black sigatoka, farmers de-leaf or cut down, accordingly, bananas plants that are showing evidence of the disease.
Famers in some parts of the country, Caesar said, are rejoicing, having brought the disease under control in their fields.
He reiterated a point made in Parliament recently that the disease must be dealt with in a scientific ways and asked citizens to leave politics out of the discussion.
Caesar called for a “united effort”, saying that as Agriculture Minister he cannot do it alone but has to work in sync with farmers, and limited resources.
He said that farmers are important in helping to spot pests and diseases and that he has begun to decentralised resources away from capital Kingstown and is moving to fully utilised the agricultural headquarters in the three regions across the country, including sending a senior official to each region to deal with localised problems.
“So the game plan is that we continue Operation Cutback. We are asking for the buy-in of the housewives, we are asking for the buy-in of all the farmers and once we bring down the inoculum levels to Level 2, then it is safe to replant bananas,” Caesar said.
He said that in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cutback, farmer should plant one or two cycles of a short-term crop instead of planting bananas since the inoculum would still be in the field. Agricultural produce marketer Vincy Fresh will assist in selling these produce, the Agriculture Minister said.