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Cargills and USAID provide missing link to Jaffna farmers

3/26/2012 12:00:00 AM   

Text and pix by Joshua Nicholas

Grapes are an icon of Jaffna agriculture, but the industry is struggling under the weight of sweeter imported varieties. Cargills Agrifoods Ltd. and USAID in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture distributed imported grape rooted cuttings and hybrid vegetable seeds on Saturday in order to assist embattled farmers.

After the war Cargills Agrifoods Ltd. and USAID set up the National Horticultural Alliance Project (NHA) with the aim of 'improving the current state of fruit and vegetable farmers and palmyrah tappers of the Northern Province.' The program specifically wishes to enhance the income and employability of the farmers and tappers. The total project investment is Rs. 222 million, with RS. 92.5 million from USAID and Rs. 129.5 million from Cargills.

Since 2009, the NHA has commenced with a 'Need Assessment Study' to capture farmers expectations and perceptions, has trained 1116 farmers and tappers in the art of vegetable cultivation, and collated data in order to ascertain the most desirable plants for the conditions and market.

The study identified the need for more desirable grape varieties and better-suited hybrid vegetables. The two grapes varieties selected come from India, Shanaka is black in colour and Sharad is pale yellow, both are seedless and sweet, ideal for local consumption. It will be around a year before the plants start bearing fruit, and they are expected to last for 10 to 12 years. The three hybrid vegetables chosen are beetroot, cabbage and red radish, ideal to grow in Jaffna's 'Calcic Red Yellow latosols' soil. Cargills intends for this to be a direct buyback arrangement, however farmers are free to sell their crops to whomever they wish.

According to Cargills Agribusiness Director Consultant Dr. J. C. Katyal, the project is following a horticultural value chain model, "intertwining improved cultivation methods, value added processing and markets." "We are preparing them to treat agriculture as a business," said Dr. Katyal, outlining the training given in creating business plans and farming procedures. "It is a cyclical model," said Dr. Katyal, as both farmers and Cargills will remain in the system assisting each other.

The Governor of the Northern Province Major General A. Chandrasiri, handed out the rooted grapes along with the packets of hybrid seeds and instructional booklets on six important vegetable crops (bitter gourd, cabbage, green chillies, tomato, carrot and brinjal) written in Tamil.

More than 1,200 rooted grapes were given out, with more likely on the way if the project is successful. "This is another step we are taking forward," said Governor Chandrasiri, adding, "the taste is sour at the moment, I am sure that in the next year we can change that."

"Once these varieties come successfully to bearing, it is likely to change the landscape of grape imports and income from grape cultivation. We expect significant gain to farmers and tremendous saving in precious foreign exchange," said Cargills Agribusiness Deputy General Manager Haridas Fernando.

Cargills has invested in a collection centre in Jaffna that has already purchased 200 tonnes of produce from surrounding areas, and averages three tonnes per day. Within four months a fruit and vegetable processing plant will be set up in Kilinochchi, providing farmers with another avenue to sell their wares, and directly employing more than 55 people.

According to Cargills Head of Vegetable Processing Unit Keerthi Gunasekara, "The farmers themselves say the system has given them an additional gain of 25-35% over and above what they would have got had they sold the produce in a local market." For their efforts, Cargills hopes to increase the reliability of supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, and ensure a reliable supply of in-demand domestically grown grapes.