Quality constraints - An illustration of perceptions
A study was carried out to identify why farmers harvested tobacco in a very immature state; a practice that resulted in the serious deterioration of leaf quality. The study highlighted a number of constraints cited by farmers and management that they alleged influenced immature harvesting. Their rationale (indicated below in italics) for the poor harvesting is presented with a summary of the study's evaluation of each of the perceived constraints.
Harvesting leaf before it's stolen. Only one instance where tobacco had allegedly been stolen was discovered during the investigation. However, not one of the 127 villages in the project had resident night guards in the fields, as was the case for watermelons cultivated in an adjacent area. The absence of guards indicated that the farmers did not consider stealing to be a problem. The complaints about stealing were advanced by management and not by either the field technicians or the farmers themselves. The investigator concluded that management used this excuse as a cover-up for their poor planning and coordination.
After heavy rain the leaf gets hot and cold. Prolonged rainfall during the later stages of the crop can stimulate a false ripening effect. Throughout the project area, the agronomist's advice on practices necessary for handling wet tobacco was totally ignored by both management and farmers.
The greener the leaf, the heavier the tobacco. The farmers presumed that production yields would decrease when the leaves turned yellow with maturity. On the contrary, harvesting unripe tobacco results in slightly lower yields than would be obtained with the fully mature leaf.
Reaping before heavy wind and hailstorms avoids damaged leaf. The recommended variety was brittle in character and farmers voiced concern if one or two leaves were prematurely broken by the wind. However, apart from rare localized squalls, wind damage was considered an insignificant hazard. Very heavy hail was more serious; a hailstorm can obliterate an entire crop, especially when the plants are fully grown. It was almost impossible to predict localized hailstorms; therefore reaping beforehand was considered an invalid excuse. Whenever hail or high winds cause leaf damage, it can only be accepted as an "Act of God" and appropriate damage control measures should be taken.
Partially valid explanations
Harvest the tobacco when the maturity spot appears. In the local rural idiom the "maturity spot" referred to leaf infection generally caused by fungal diseases. Farmers everywhere feel the need to harvest their crops at the first indication of disease. Tobacco leaf damaged by disease can be purchased and used, although it would normally be classified as a lower grade. This was basically a managerial problem: either there were insufficient disease controls prior to the infestation or there was a lack of understanding by management and farmers of how to handle that type of tobacco.
The urgency to harvest their maize crops. Normally the maize harvest coincided with the important last three weeks of the tobacco harvest. As demands on family labour were at their greatest at that time of the season, farmers may have opted to complete their tobacco harvest before starting on their maize crop. Such practices would increase the possibility of harvesting the top prime four to six leaves together, all at an immature stage.
Greater need for barn space towards the end of the season. In some villages barn space for curing was poorly organized, resulting in excessive demand for space in the final few weeks of harvesting. This showed that extension staff should have allocated tobacco quotas on the capacity of each village to process its production rather than on its ability to grow the crop.
Farmers wanting to sow their winter wheat before the first frost. This factor was the most common explanation given by farmers and local management. A local government directive stated that winter wheat must be sown during a given period. The law directed that all maize, tobacco and other cash crops grown on land designated for wheat production had to be harvested by a stipulated date. There was a lack of communication between the government and the tobacco agency.
Arbitrary directive to close the barns. A real concern for the farmers was the serious possibility of the buying stations closing for the season before they were ready to sell their production. One farmer who was found harvesting the eight prime top leaves well before maturity remarked that the curing barns were "closing in a week", the approximate time it would take to cure his leaves.
Of the nine explanations investigated, three fully valid constraints were held to be the responsibility of the agency that managed the project. A combination of poor planning, conflicting priorities between government agencies and the lack of an understanding by all participants of what constituted quality resulted in the closure of the project after seven years.