Tobacco seedlings

16 10 2010

I have grown some tobacco seedlings on spec this year – hoping that we can sell them without and order. In days gone by we used to do quite a lot of seedlings this way but now it’s a bit chancy and we prefer to only grow to order.

It is also an opportunity to experiment with a different method of growing seedlings – we float the polystyrene trays on shallow ponds of nutrients instead of watering them from above on wire racks. The pond method is well suited to tobacco and some years ago I did work with UNDP in Malawi converting farmers to this technique so I had a good idea how it worked. It is getting much more attention in Zimbabwe now that methyl bromide used to sterilize the seed beds is on it’s way out of use. It is damaging to the ozone layer so now with the Montreal Protocol it is being phased out. Methyl bromide is an extraordinary effective fumigant and though there are others available they just don’t do the job that well and the Zimbabwe tobacco industry has become commited to the “floating tray” technique as it’s known. That should be good news for my company – or so I thought. Having sounded out a couple of tobacco company agronomists I decided to take a chance and put in 30ha worth of seedlings of two cultivars that were deemed to be popular. I am very pleased with how well the seedlings have grown and even my landlord Tony, an ex-tobacco farmer of many years was impressed with the seedling quality. Selling them has been a bit more difficult.

So when I saw a customer looking interested in the ponds this morning I moved in for the hard sell and told him he was looking at the best tobacco seedlings in the country (with a big smile to make it more humourous). We soon got chatting and it emerged that he had been let down by the Tobacco Research Board’s commercial operation so he was indeed interested. It was also obvious that he was a “new farmer” i.e. had acquired his farm without paying for it. I am uncomfortable with this sort of setup but I have to be pragmatic – I need the money. Then Mr N arrived. He is a big bear of a man and unusally for a black in this part of the world he grows a beard. He is VERY outspoken and soon assessed the situation. He introduced himself to all around and then proceeded to make a very loud comment about “those of us who don’t have political connections” while grinning at me to emphasize the point. I did an inward wince but I am used to Mr N’s comments – he said to me once; “I am 74, what are they going to do to me?”. The tobacco customer has indicated that he will be back for more seedlings next week – so just maybe we are at the start of a new successful project.

T64 tobacco seedlings grown with "float tray" method. Seedlings shown are immature.