SERIOUS PROBLEM: Ramsingh Mahabir points to diseased melon crop.

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Melon farmers hit hard by crop disease

BECAUSE of continuous rains throughout this year watermelon farmers in the Bush Bush area of Kernahan, Mayaro, lost thousands of dollars worth of watermelon crops.

Ramsingh Mahabir, a melon farmer for the past 27 years, pointed to the hillside that was now replanted with a fresh crop.

"Farmers in Bush Bush usually plant watermelon on hilly land so that the water would not affect the crop. There is too much water on the flat for crops to grow. However, this year, with the months of rain, the hill land remained wet. The coldness brought on the dreaded 'gummy stem blight disease'. This disease is caused by the fungus Didymella bryonia. It affects the leaves with what we call 'bacteria leaf spot' and there is oozing of a gummy substance from the infected stem.

"We watched most of our melon rotting away in the dampness. There was nothing we could do as the rain continued."

Mahabir and other farmers counted their losses that amounted to more than $15,000 in investment and much more in potential sales.

"This is usual when there is plenty rain. When this happens, sometimes you manage to get 20 per cent of your crop. However, this year was the worst. We watched all the leaves falling out as the crop melted. In this state, the melon has no taste and it is hard like cucumber.

"When you plant 25,000 pounds per acre and you only get 20 per cent of the crop earlier than harvest time, there is no money to be made. You still have to try to sell it out because melon is perishable. First-class melon goes for $1.50 per pound, but when you get too much at one time it goes for only 20 cents.

"Farmers can plant up to three crops per year as long as they maintain the land but most settle for two crops per year to give the soil a chance to rest. We practise a system of rotation with tomato, cucumber, bodi, ochro, pepper and other short-term crops."

The dry season also brings woes to melon farmers.

Mahabir shook some leaves over a sheet of writing paper and dozens of minute insects were seen crawling over the white surface.

This was the thrips insect. This one-millimetre-long insect represents one of the many headaches that melon farmers are forced to face. The thrips insect feeds at night, puncturing and sucking up the melon. One thrips lays between 500 to 700 eggs. This species of thrips is considered a pest because it feeds on plants with commercial value.

"When thrips invades your crop, you see all the leaves and the head of the melon turning yellow. This happens in the dry season when there is no rain. With the two weeks of sun we are now getting, thrips is back.

"This now puts us in more expense as we have to use medicines to try to save our crop. We use one teaspoon of NewMectin to four gallons of water to fight the insects on the outside of the plants. We also use 12 spoons of Pronto to three gallons of water. Pronto gets inside the plant to fight the thrips."

When farmers thought that their troubles had passed for this year, they have now discovered a new threat to their melon crops. Mahabir picked up a melon inflicted with vertical cracks along the top half.

"None of the farmers knows what disease this is. This is a new disease that is destroying melon crops throughout the area. When you see these cracks appear you know that the inside of the melon will be affected. This field was planted almost two and a half months ago, which means that it is just about ready to be harvested. Now with this new disease, it looks like we will suffer more losses.

Mahabir has since sent a sample to be tested at the Research Division, Central Experiment Station of the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs.

Farmers in Bush Bush are regarded as squatters. The forested area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1968 and a prohibited area in 1989.

According to farmers in the area, they plant their crops outside the reserve.

'There is a buffer line and we make sure that we plant outside of this. What we really need is a continuation of the pitch road up to the buffer line. There are about 15 farmers living after the point where the pitch road ends. We need less than half mile of road again so that farmers could transport their crops economically.

"We have to pay a tractor man $300 to transport 3,500 pounds just from this field to where the pitch reaches. Not everybody could afford to buy a tractor. Tourists that come to visit the sanctuary sometimes turn back because there is too much mud.

"Farmers are the ones who create employment in this area and without proper access road to our crops our livelihood is compromised."

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