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Hope for tobacco growers in extension services

With few weeks to go before the next tobacco marketing season opens, some growers are not sure about what the market will bring forth this time around. But Wilson Masanjala of Makochera Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Makata in Blantyre is upbeat that his tobacco leaf will fetch a fortune at the market.

Standing deep in his two-hectare garden, almost covered by the leaf, Masanjala says he has done all he needed to fetch more money from the leaf during this selling season.

Masanjala only waits for time to take his bales to the floors to be repaid for his sweat.

He says his confidence of a good marketing season, at least for him stems from the extension services he has received from leaf technicians.

Masanjala is a contracted grower with JTI. He states that he has done everything leaf technicians advised him. Masanjala adds that a bumper crop he has produced is testimony enough that with proper advice from experts, growers can produce quality leaf that every buyer would like to buy.

“Tobacco is a delicate crop to handle and, therefore, there is a need to ensure that it is looked after with utmost care. There is no shortcut to producing a high quality leaf, the leaf that can beat the rest,” he says.

“Being a farmer under contract, I have always produced the desired leaf for two seasons now with JTI. This is as a result of consistent extension services together with the rest of the farmers under contract; get from the company’s assigned technicians. We produce tobacco that any buyer can desire, hence this confidence that my leaf will fetch high prices.”

Masanjala says growers under contract farming, also known as Integrated Production System (IPS) are closely monitored and overseen by technicians, who spend all their time in the field, to ensure that the quality of the leaf the buyer desires is achieved.

He states that right from the nursery, growers are taught as to how best to produce strong seedlings that can withstand the forces of nature. He said the Chichewa pun fodya nkunazare is right because once a farmer messes up at the nursery the end product is not good at all.

This, he says, is what he has been missing in the past when he was not under contract.

“I used to miss it right from the nursery with wrong bed measurements and wrong variety of seed, mostly recycled from the previous year’s crop,” he confesses.

“And as if that wasn’t enough, the spacing of the ridges and that of the tobacco seedlings were all wrong, no wonder the yields were not any better year in, year out.”

Masanjala, who grows BRK 4, one of the certified seeds demanded by buyers, says he used to recycle seeds without thinking of the repercussions of the same because he wasn’t trained on evils of planting recycled seeds.

“Everything, we were doing in the past was wrong, from seed choice to fertilisation even harvesting. Under contract farming, we are told exactly how to produce the leaf. This is why I am challenging you today that my tobacco will fetch high price,” he said rather tongue-in-cheek.

As a grower under contract, Masanjala said he received all the necessary farm input, which were duly applied at both nursery and field to keep the seedlings free from pests, and for the healthy growth of the seedlings, respectively.

“Tobacco production is expensive and had it not been for contract farming, a majority of growers could have afforded to grow quality leaf needed by buyers. With contract farming one is assured that all the required inputs will be provided,” said Masanjala.

Back to extension services he has received from the leaf technicians, Masanjala said another critical stage in tobacco production is topping, which is the cutting of the top part of the tobacco stem to restrict further growth.

“We do not carry out topping until the stem in the field has between 20 and 22 leaves and we also apply a special chemical at the same stage,” explains. “Topping allows the applied fertiliser to spread to the leaves evenly, enriching them with nicotine while the chemical restricts the grown of suckers or budding off-shoots.”

From the field to the barn, the leaf needs proper handling too and according to the grower, they are advised to cut two “ripen” leaves at a time from every tobacco stem and that in the barn, the leaves should be well spaced to allow proper curing.

Other than leaf management from the nursery to the field, the barn and beyond, another interesting thing about Masanjala and his fellow farmers is their contract company’s care for the growers’ health and care for the environment.

“We are always advised not to work in the field without putting on protective clothing, which includes long-sleeve clothing to keep the skin not in contact with the leaves which contain chemicals that are not good for our health,” explains the proud grower.

He continues: “For the safety of our environment, all the bottles and packets of chemicals we use from the nursery to the end are kept in a safe place and handed over to the company for proper disposal in the end. We do not dispose of the materials on our own.”

One aspect worth mentioning is that under contract farming, growers are strictly advised against child labour. At no stage of the tobacco growing process do they use children to carry out any tobacco-related task. With all these do’s and don’ts the green gold of every contract farmer like Masanjala is as good as sold at the floors, challenges the grower.

It is such rich technical expertise in handling the leaf from nursery to baling as taught by the field officers that leaves contract farmers walk out of the floors smiling.

“I am looking forward to a successful marketing season this year,” says Masanjala. “We have done our part and we just hope that buyers will offer us good prices commensurate with the type of leaf we have produced.”

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