Atzera cocoa farmers need help – The National

The incomplete cocoa nursery at the Chichingbampun budwood garden.

BEHIND the kunai grassland at Chichingbampun along the stretch of dusty road from Daing Junction to Garam at Atzera in Morobe’s Markham valley nestles the incomplete cocoa bud wood garden and nursery.
This nursery is expected to give a new lease of life to thousands of farmers in Markham, should existing cocoa producing trees hit a snag anytime.
The problem is imminent due to lack of appropriate certified planting materials and farm management practices in district.
Realising this looming issue, the Yaungbini Agro-cocoa budwood Project (YACBP) initiated the budwood garden in August 2022. The group has 120 memberships.
Dangke chira and Wafibampun landowner association chairman, George Rifi and his executives understand the good cocoa will bring to them and have released their land to add value to it.
Similar initiatives are underway at Ragiampum (where the group there comprises 200 members), as well as Unas and Abirawang along the Umi plains.
The Chichingbampun bud-wood garden is led by Roy Paul Rifi and it inspires youths to be industrious and utilise the land to promote government aspirations in agricultural activity.
Importantly, cocoa farming will create self-employment opportunities by working in partnership with Cocoa Board of PNG. In a nutshell, the future is in developing Chichingbampun into a cocoa budwood resource and training centre.
This Route 49 dusty highway also caters for the Atzera Mainland Holdings farm, Garam Primary School which has 13 teachers and 500-plus pupils, and the aid post with two staff.
Various cash cropping activities in Atzera plains occur along this dusty road linking cocoa farmers and leading fermentary owners in Chichingbampun, Bagabuang, Mamaringan, Marangitz, Mazam, Mangiang, Binimap and Iyamguzun villages with an estimated 10,000 population linking the former Kaiapit station.
Yet, the road remains unbearable. Toyota Coaster busses, trucks and cars sway from side to side while negotiating this road both in the wet and dusty dry spells. Nevertheless, this awful route provides the only easy daily haus-dua services.
The commuters and farmers are denied the benefits of their taxes paid in various forms in doing cocoa, trade store and PMV businesses.
The fertility of Chichingbampun grassland also attracted the Fresh Produce Development Agency (FPDA) to initiate a pathogen tested (PT) kaukau (sweet potato) seed nursery and distribution project. FPDA earlier assisted the Mangiang women’s group to cultivate lowland round cabbages.
Also, the Kokonas Indastri Koporesen (KIK) vowed to integrate cocoa and hybrid coconut project in this part of the Makham valley.
The Umi-Atzera cocoa farmers, apart from Onga-Waffa and Wantoat, are rated the forerunners in cocoa production fetching K14 million of the total K16 million shared among farmers’ pockets in 2022.
This adds to Morobe’s overall production that fetched K38 million in producing 13 per cent (6,000 tonnes) of cocoa towards the total volume of 14,000 tonnes earning K350 million for the country in 2022.
Yet, local farmers receive next to nothing in technical and financial support from the district agriculture and livestock (DAL) office to maintain best farming practices for a healthy production and yield.
Even apt data and statistics are not available. Most farmers rely on their minimal skills in managing farms that bring value to family livelihoods each day. This creates a gap for open-pollinated pod (OPP) material to creep-in, and likely affect production.
This writer noted that the Markham DAL and Cocoa Board offices never invested in any central budwood garden and nursery to cater for certified planting materials (hybrid clones) for distribution to farmers. In this way, it can withstand cocoa pests and diseases into the future.
Cocoa Board extension officer Mason Tiamani said 90 per cent of planting materials in Markham were OPP, as a result of cross-pollination by insects and wind. This is also called ‘bastard’ cocoa.
The OPP benefits are enjoyed for a very short period of time, then it faces a sharp drop in production leaving farmers in uncertainty. Thus, they require alternatives set in place to save farmers and production rates.
Otherwise, most farmers will be left in limbo anytime when sharp drop occurs. The district DAL unable to foresee this imminent issue and conduct survey, verify, set strategies and educate farmers to prepare for it.
In production terms, if OPP seedlings are planted, that must be in a large-scale farm to yield ample results. On the other hand, hybrid clone seedlings in a small-scale farm can produce up to three tonnes per hectare per year. If all Markham farmers can plant certified clone materials, their production figures will double or triple.
In cocoa farming, two programmes are conducted in parallel to safeguard production. The first is to develop new planting materials by propagating new seedlings in nursery and distribute to farmers. Second, to rehabilitate existing cocoa blocks.
Thus, the budwood garden is to serve these two programmes to propagate seedling in nursery and supply budwoods to existing cocoa trees through chupon budding, a technology that was left to collect dust elsewhere for some time.
Chupon budding is to induce older trees from knee-heigh down, allow the chupon to grow, and bring on budwood garden and clone it, then remove the older tree and allow bud to grow to maintain and increase yield. Yet, most farmers knowingly or unknowingly continue to plant OPP and grapple with other existing farm management issues which have never been attended to over time.
Thus, to counteract to this sharp-drop when it occurs, these budwood gardens at Chichingbampun, Ragiampum, Unas and Abirawang are aimed address this pattern. The proposed 200 hectares budwood garden at Chichingbampun, when fully developed into a cocoa estate, will have no match anywhere in Markham and Morobe in future.
Roy’s various attempts to seek technical and financial help from Markham district and LLG’ were unsuccessful although several officers visited Chichingbampun project site and took photographs. Roy was given only five litres of herbicide each time to spray weeds.
The Ragiampum nursery is built using bamboo and coconut leaves to meet demand. Morobe deputy governor Willie Simbisi provided 50,000 poly bags and the Cocoa Board offered 30,000 poly bags with 10,000 seedlings
Amidst the challenges, in August 2022, Roy met Tiamani, one of the best minds behind cocoa extension work with Cocoa Board. Tiamani’s technical expertise resulted in planting shade trees and the first batch of 480 clone seedlings covering one hectare, currently four months old for budding process expected in mid-July 2024.
In November 2023, the Cocoa Board assisted with 20 steel posts for building a permanent nursery which is currently incomplete. And additional posts, roofing material and shade-cloth are yet to be bought. This is forcing farmers to dig deep into their pockets.
A scientist at Tavilo Research Centre (TRC) in East New Britain is expected in early 2024 into Markham to certify the plants.
Tiamani calls the Erap DAL station a home-away-from-home after former Cocoa Board chief executive officer, late Boto Gaupu, encouraged him to leave home in Kokopo, East New Britain in 2018 and fly over to experience the marafri culture.
Budwood gardens and nurseries are crucial for healthy cocoa production in country. Therefore, hybrid seeds are planted in polybags in a nursery and grown for about four months before transplanting in the field.
To make clones, mother trees supplied by CBoPNG are grown in a special garden to produce budwood for budding and grafting onto seedlings are grown in nursery. Seedlings for budding or grafting are grown from seeds of healthy trees.
The are grown for two to eight weeks before budding depending on the type of budding practiced.
Tiamani aspires to conduct full extensions and trainings come 2024 using ‘ripples’ extension model. It is a concept that brings surrounding farmers into a resource centre where they are trained to minimise cost and time in conducting one-on-one training or farmer-contact. Farmers are urged to join established groups to access the training.
Tiamani also plans to train local farm leaders and devise a follow-up material for farm leaders that will conduct assessments, collect farm management data in respective farms. Besides, a ‘farmer field school will be created where lead farmers are trained and certified to conduct extension work.
The inception of ‘’ripple model and FFS’’ is determined by demand among the cocoa farming population. In Markham, the estimated ratio is one extension officer to 20,000 farmers.
“We can still do it better in Markham’s production figure only if we address issues in planting materials,” says Tiamani.
Markham has a high demand for certified planting materials; cocoa production depends on environment, farm management and planting materials.
Should Markham district establish a central cocoa nursery and budwood garden that will help farmers immensely and minimise related issues.
Although, Markham cocoa production news is promoted elsewhere, even through submissions to the departments of National Planning and Monitoring, Finance and Treasury, to secure agriculture funding, the farmers receive no technical and financial support in extension and rehabilitation work.
Besides, none of the Cocoa Board officers in Kokopo and the Madang-based regional manager visit Markham to experience farmers’ dilemma. Even Tiamani remains handicapped without a vehicle and insufficient funding to help cocoa farmers.
As such, any sharp drop in cocoa production in Markham should not surprise anyone.

  • Pisai Gumar is a freelance journalist

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