It’s a Real Challenge to be a Farmer

Typical leaf yellowing of a late begomovirus infection of hot pepper.

Typical leaf yellowing of a late begomovirus infection of hot pepper.

Time and time again you visit farmers’ fields following complaints or issues that you hear through dealers, seed production or trials staff to find that the whole crop is lost, not just for the first time but for the second or even third time.

Farmers who are experienced seed producers would never produce seed for a variety unless they have first evaluated the parents in the field, at least for the season that it is to be produced in. The same is also common for experienced farmers who are looking to grow new varieties and which is why many seed companies wanting farmers to trial new varieties offer to compensate them should the crop fail (something that farmers should insist upon before undertaking any such trial).

For farmers changing crops, unless they are very experienced, little is often known as to how the crop will adapt to their local environment particularly diseases. Some experienced farmers who I come across have rules that they will not grow certain crops/varieties. These often include tomato (due to bacterial wilt), watermelon (due to viruses, chances of unseasonal rain), melon (one farmer said that he would never, ever grow melons unless he had a large plastic house because of potyviruses, begomoviruses and tospoviruses, let alone all the leaf eating insects) and pepper (begomoviruses and tospoviruses).

Once in a while you come across the truly talented and knowledgable farmer who is aware of the risks and is prepared to manage the crop. One such farmer I met in Malang, Indonesia who planted a one hectare open field crop of hot pepper and managed to have a crop and make a handsome profit. He managed all inputs just like an orchestra conductor spraying for sucking insects (mainly thrips and whiteflies), applying fertiliser weekly and watering by furrow irrigation as required but never flooding for more than a few hours. At about four months he stopped spraying as the crop only had about another month of productive life. Before he stopped spraying (which he admits to doing twice a week) he only had a handful of virus infected plants in the field. At five months, which is when I saw the crop, the level of virus infection was about 90% with the characteristic yellow leaves on top of green bushy plants. This guy succeeded where other farmers in the area failed in that he managed his crop and knew the risks as well as the variety he was growing. The benefit to the farmer was that he could sell his crop into the market for which there was a high demand and a very good price.

The same can also be seen with watermelon growers in southern Vietnam. During Tet (Vietnamese New Year), normally late January or February, the price of watermelon (red fleshed) in the market is very high, over VND10,000 per kilo for a 5 kilo fruit (often five to ten times the normal price) as it is a gift commonly exchanged between relatives, friends etc. Probably 80% of all watermelon sold during the year are during this period and farmers, particularly in southern areas, want to grow it for the high market price. However, there is always a risk, perhaps 50%, for farmers in the south as the first rains of the season always fall just before Tet during the flowering period. The rains are always very isolated and this in itself is the gamble, but farmers see it as a calculated risk. Normally for farmers hit by the few days of rain the loss is total while those fortunate enough to miss the rain, the celebrations are long and plentiful. In Vietnam seedless watermelon has over 70% of the total market share of which the single variety from Syngenta, Mat Troi Do (Red Sun) dominates due to its flesh, skin colour and shape, keeping quality (up to 30 days), 1 cm rind that is firm reducing field and transport damage and sweetness.

The life of a farmer is always a risk but some manage that risk and reap the rewards.