This has been possibly our most difficult period. Fortunately, there is lots of light at the end of the tunnel.
First of all, our plans for the year were very reliant on a promised investment of US$100,000 which did not materialise. First it was delayed, which was doubly annoying because it was earmarked to buy green vanilla from farmers for us to process in our new facility. Then it became obvious it was not going to happen, though nothing was said. This at a critical time, and we ran very low on money, to the point where Paul, the Raja and myself went without wages.
Secondly, we received a very brutal review of our vanilla and expectations thereof, saying our yield estimate was 20 times what we can expect and the price of vanilla is below $100. Well, this first was based on internet information, which we have found very misleading, as opposed to our information gleaned from experience and other growers. There does seem to be a concerted attempt by foreign buyers to get the price below $100, but we are still getting offers from Indonesia at $200. Nevertheless, this review was very disheartening coming at a time when the triple La Nina has devastated the crops and brought much lower than expected crops.
As expected, the flowering has been poor and the crop will not be very much. It has been interesting to see the effect of the rain on the vanilla, and the different conclusions that Dadap and myself have reached. Dadap feels the worst effect is the lack of sunlight on the lower branches, encouraging rot. I think that we are seeing waterlogged ground destroying roots, and the water leaching all the nutrients out of the soil.
Naturally, we consider both options! Lots of pruning to let in plenty of sun and we are saving the compost for the end of the rainy season – no point putting it on to be washed away. Anyway, wet compost causes rot, dry compost causes growth.
Next year we should have a bumper crop, if the indications in the gardens are anything to go by.
The buyers have been coming around, and every visit gives us valuable information as they gossip. Ugandan and Madagascan vanilla is currently of very poor quality. If you remember, we forecast this a few months ago. Lots of Indonesian buyers, after 3 years of La Nina, are giving up. Including one of the most innovative growers from Banyuwangi in East Java. We here the same is happening in India. We think this delivers great opportunity, for the flood of poor-quality vanilla will subside, and we will get better prices for our quality vanilla. However, it may make it hard to buy green vanilla for processing and we plan to buy twenty tons… I fear it just won’t be available.
We’ve confirmed with our colleagues in Manado, marine biologists, that rain kills lobsters, mainly through abrupt change in temperature. So, we are looking to roof the fishery with polycarbonate. We are also suspicious of egrets and kingfishers visiting early in the morning, so we have netted the hatching ponds. We have accepted defeat on feeding and are giving a proportion of pellets at present, though we are experimenting to phase this out.
We have given up on mealworms – too long to get breeding beetles – and crickets, who are too vulnerable to other predators. We would have lizards, snakes, birds, everything coming to eat them! Plus, we couldn’t find a feed that made them high in protein except commercial chicken food, which rather spoilt the principal. Worms are not cost effective. The lobsters love them and we get a fair few, but it is not commercially viable without far more cow manure.
On the other hand, we have cracked BSF, Black Soldier fly production. We harvest the spoilt fruit and vegetable rubbish from the markets, and raise them in these. Nothing fancy, and rather than waiting to harvest them, we give the rotten fruit laden with maggots to the lobsters. They much prefer the young maggots to the older ones, and they love the rotting fruit, so it is win-win!
This is very exciting, because getting hold of protein is the big challenge in animal husbandry. With this, we can raise many, many more creatures, and we are investigating turkeys as we speak. Free range turkeys fed on BSF and fruit. We can get $10 a kilo for a dressed bird, which normally are harvested at 6 months giving 5kg. Not only is there a strong demand for the meat, but turkey ham is the perfect halal food for the local market. It will be a year before we can plan this, but in the meantime, we can run an experiment alongside the lobsters for a few hundred bucks.
On the lobster front, we seem to have overcome a number of obstacles, including infant mortality and SLDS – sudden lobster death syndrome! This seems to be caused by rain when they change their skin. Careful monitoring of the lobsters, even though they object to regular measurement, has revealed how to get them to grow faster, and they are putting on substantial weight once they get over 50g. Next month, we should be ready to sell in earnest, albeit most will be smaller than planned. We have 20,000 babies at present, which represents $400,000 if we could get them to full size… even 20% mortality will be a win.
We are expecting two offers from N American firms, both north of 2 million dollars, one introduced by the gentleman who failed to come up with the 100,000 investment. Both these offers smack of predatory takeover, and the board is not enthusiastic, but conscious there may be no alternative.
However, we are still selling shares and have sold enough for this month. We have a new online marketing effort about to be launched. The company responsible is quietly confident this will succeed. And we have a Spanish consortium wishing to buy 5% and invest further monies through an alternative investment scheme. This last would ensure we could finish the factory and buy some green vanilla from farmers, an essential step in creating the cooperatives.
We feel that we just need to hang on and a year without El Nina will transform the situation.
Chairman at PT Royal Spice Gardens
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