Thursday, September 24, 2009

In praise of the humble potato

Two of the new potato screen houses at Tambul, Western Highlands province
Fresh Produce Development Agency potato garden at Tambul
Potato growing at Tambul
Inside one of the new potato screen houses at Tambul

The importance of the potato industry in Papua New Guinea has been stressed in no uncertain terms.

Potato’s virtues were extolled in the country’s potato capital of Tambul, Western Highlands province, during Tuesday’s opening of Fresh Produce Development Agency’s 12 new potato screen houses there.

The aphid (potato pest)-proof houses, valued at K50, 000 each, were funded by the national government’s public investment programme (PIP).

They are situated next to the National Agriculture Research Institute’s high altitude programme at Tambul.

The 12 new screen houses add to the existing 12 and will be a major boost to PNG’s K100 million potato industry as it makes a comeback from the devastation of the notorious Potato Late Blight Disease of 2003, which almost destroyed the industry in the country.

Potato plantlets from the tissue culture laboratory at Aiyura Valley in the Eastern Highlands province will be taken to Tambul, where they will be grown in the screen houses before being distributed to farmers.

This technology allows FPDA to produce disease-free seedlings which can be rapidly multiplied before being distributed to farmers.

Tambul potato farmers’ representative Philip Talopa said the potato industry was one of the larger agricultural industries that could be worth K100m or more.

“We have 52 seed growers in the Highlands, 30 of whom come from Western Highlands province and the majority comes from Tambul,” he told hundreds of people who gathered at Tambul, beneath majestic Mt Giluwe, on Tuesday.

“Tambul produces about 75% of potatoes in PNG.

“Other major areas of production include Okapa and Daulo in Eastern Highlands, Gembogl in Simbu province, Upper Ialibu in Southern Highlands and Kandep in Enga.

“Tambul, however, is the backbone of the potato industry in Papua New Guinea.

“In good times, and in bad times, we fall back on potato.

“We now have 12 new potato screen houses at Tambul, which added to the existing 12, makes for 24 altogether, at which plantlets from Aiyura are grown before being distributed to farmers.

“FPDA and NARI now have an agreement, and they are producing more plantlets.

“We at Tambul are the engine room of the industry.

“We will now be able to produce more seeds.

“We don’t have any other major cash crops, apart from potato.

“We have the right climactic conditions here to be able to mass-produce seeds for distribution to farmers.”

Mr Talopa wants the government to stop imports of potatoes to give a chance to local farmers to develop the industry, government to subsidise costs of chemicals and fertilisers, and frost-resistant varieities of potato to be developed as Tambul and other high-altitude areas that grow potatoes are prone to frost.

Agriculture businessman and strong potato advocate Grame Ross, of Alele Farm Fresh Produce, said potato had the best returns in agriculture with an 86% profit margin; the industry was worth over K100m and was a guaranteed source of food security.

“The potato, according to experts, is the crop with the best return in Papua New Guinea.,” he said.

“We have a big need for quality seeds in PNG.

“Many people in PNG are crying for quality seeds.

“These new screen houses are a big step forward.

“Before 2003, we were importing a lot of seeds from Australia.

“Today, we are independent in seed production.

“Papua New Guinea can do it.

“We don’t have good distribution.

“You Tambul have good supply.

“There must be equal distribution in Papua New Guinea.

“The seed industry is a new one which can be worth up to K46m annually.

“There is an urgent need for training, especially in such areas as safety when using chemicals.

“Potato is a big deal.

“It is disease-free and nutritional.

“This will create family values in PNG.”

Eastern Highlands agricultural advisor John Sari said potato was the best bet for farmers in high-altitude areas of PNG.

“Tambul has the ideal climate or growing potatoes, being situated 2,000m above sea level, where coffee doesn’t grow well,” he said.

“There is now light at the end of the tunnel.

“Potato will one day beat coffee and cocoa.”

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