JAMAICA'S local ginger production is expected to make a remarkable comeback as efforts to subside the rhizome rot disease woes are yielding progress.
Following a year of research by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Caribbean under its Sustainable Agriculture in the Caribbean (SAC) project in collaboration with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) and the Ministry of Agriculture, the plant was removed from the natural elements completely. A year into research, the solution to tackle rhizome disease in ginger is showing big results.
"From a one-centimetre plant, we were able to produce half a pound of ginger," said a very optimistic climate-smart agriculture specialist for the SAC project, Alvin Murray, while speaking to the Jamaica Observer at the Denbigh Agricultural, Industrial and Food Show.
"If you put that figure on a per-acre basis, that yield would be about 20,000 pounds per acre, which is very encouraging, but our farmers are struggling to get 10," he added.
Rhizome rot, also called "soft rot", is one of the most devastating diseases of ginger. With pathogens to destroy the crop possibly being in the natural components needed for healthy crop growth, SAC began exploring a soil-less and protected agriculture technique for growing turmeric in a greenhouse completely closed out from the weather elements. According to Murray, farmers can start considering replanting the crop. "So we use seedling trays and we take these tips, so a kilogram of ginger could maybe give you up to 400 plants. We saw where just one centimetre produced half a pound from September to February, so we are very optimistic that this might help us to solve the problem."
He admits it is an expensive business, as a greenhouse costs over $3 million. The idea instead is to use treated bamboo to make the greenhouse, and farmers could be trained on how to build it. "We are managing some of the parameters there, and we think that once it works well and farmers can make their own low-cost greenhouses, they will be able to get much higher yields," Murray told the Business Observer.
While giving the Business Observer a tour of one of its soil greenhouses on display at the Denbigh agricultural show in Clarendon, Nelsa English Johnson, country coordinator for WUSC, explained that the treatment of the bamboo involves a solution using borax and boric acid that is mixed to protect it from termites and insects for the next five to seven years. The greenhouse also has an antiviral mesh to keep out insects and ultraviolet plastic on top that helps control the amount of sunlight that comes into the house. English Johnson showed the team the healthy growth of pepper, turmeric, and ginger crops in shredded coconut husk, shredded bamboo leaves, and goat manure.
"So we plant it in these bags without using soil, so the pathogen should not be in here. And what we do is we utilise treated water, so we don't even go to like a river or anything because it's possible the pathogen might be in river water, so we use treated water to do irrigation," she said while pointing to the neatly packed crops.
According to Murray, the timed water dispensing limits the amount of water, making it just enough for the plant. "We might be able to lick [hit)]the problem, but we can't say if it will give us the 100 pe rcent success we are looking for," he told the Business Observer.
There are currently three sites where model greenhouses have been set up to combat rhizome rot: Johnson Mountain in St Thomas, Bull Head Mountain in Clarendon, and Cacoon Castle in Hanover.
For years, a shortage of ginger production resulted in the price of ginger being through the roof, well over $300 per pound on the local market, and farmers with experience in ginger planting "are dead afraid of planting ginger" due to its history of rhizome rot destroying lands. Previously, the solution has been to continually relocate, taking the crop from land to land in hopes it would be rid of the disease, leaving farmers in a cycle of uptake and then fall. "Rhizome rot is very complex, I regard it as an environmental problem; it's in the water, it's in the dust, and it's in the soil," said Murray. "About 70 per cent of the ginger we use now [is imported] and we can export only 10 per cent of what we're producing at twice world market prices."
He projects that if the soil-free and protective agriculture technique really works as they want it to, Jamaica could start to reclaim its position as one of the top ginger producers in the world.
"The disease also affects turmeric, but it's much more tolerant. Unfortunately, we have not taken turmeric as a crop seriously as yet; in fact, the last time people planted turmeric was some 20 years ago as a commercial crop," Murray revealed.