Marcella Scarlett, Business Reporter
The orange rust disease, which affects sugar cane plants, caused Worthy Park Estate Limited to lose approximately 12,000 tonnes of canes last crop season, according to Farms Manager Andrew Hopwood.
The estate is currently experimenting with treatments for its cane fields, as well as new crop varieties to engineer a more disease-resistant cane.
Worthy Park's farms at Lluidasvale span more than 1,000 hectares, which yield about 70,000 tonnes per hectare, said Hopwood.
The loss of the 12,000 tonnes of cane to the disease undercut the factory's production by 1,370 tonnes of sugar, according to the farm manager, who based his estimate on the 8.76 tonne-cane/tonne-sugar yield achieved by the St Catherine-based estate.
The sugar sold for roughly J$85,000 per tonne, so had the fields not been affected by disease, "we would have gained another J$120 million," he said.
Overall, Worthy Park processed 21,680 tonnes of sugar from 189,889 tonnes of cane during the season - reflecting earnings of more than J$1.8 billion assuming full sales at the J$85,000 price - having fallen 20,111 tonnes short of its cane production target.
The diseased cane accounted for about 60 per cent of the missed target.
The orange rust disease is not unique to Worthy Park, but the St Catherine-based estate was said to be the worst affected of the six sugar producers.
The factory is supplied with cane from its own lands at Lluidasvale, leased lands at Caymanas Estate and Bog Walk, and by contracted farmers.
Hopwood said Worthy Park's fields at Caymanas Park and Bog Walk - spanning some 650 hectares in total - were not as badly affected by the disease, neither were the small farmers supplying the factory.
"The farm is located some 1,200 feet above sea level and the higher you go, the cooler it gets. There are benefits to that and there are also negatives. The conditions here give us better yields but the coolness also causes us to be more susceptible to the disease," said managing director Peter McConnell, referring to the Lluidasvale lands.
Attacking the disease
To combat the disease, Hopwood said the estate is experimenting with different fungicides, and is seeing success "to an extent" as a short-term fix to the problem.
For the long term, Worthy Park is in the process of setting up a nursery to research new cane varieties, to identify those that are more resistant to the disease.
"We have a nursery that we have laid out in conjunction with the cane-breeding station in Barbados and the Sugar Industry Research Institute, where we have over 15,000 new plantlets that are in the ground," said McConnell.
"The idea for this is - because Worthy Park is more prone to the disease - so we can do early detection [to] eliminate the varieties early on," he said.
Hopwood said the disease has been spreading.
"Over time, varieties which we thought were fine became susceptible to the disease. At first when the disease just became prevalent, it affected the BJ 7230 and the BJ 3156, but of late we are seeing it in the BJ 7504," the farm manager said.
He said 40 per cent of the cane at Worthy Park is of the BJ 7504 variety.
By operating the nursery, Worthy Park will be able to identify which varieties are more prone to the disease by next cane season, "and then we can eliminate those".
But it could take as long as three years before any real results are seen.
"Many of the older varieties have been taken out and some of the newer varieties have problems such as rust … and, therefore, it is very important that we propagate new varieties that will enable us to have maximum production out of what we are doing and we do not forget sucrose content while we are doing it," Hopwood said.
Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke said the Government is working with the industry to combat the orange rust disease, which he said has not only hurt Worthy Park's bottom line but is threatening the viability of some small farms.
"A major challenge we face in the industry is identifying suitable varieties," said Clarke.
Worthy Park has the reputation of being the most efficient sugar estate in the country.
"If one were to use a yard stick to measure what other estates should be doing, Worthy Park is the stick," Clarke said.
Orange rust is an airborne fungal disease that attacks sugar cane. It was detected in Jamaica in 2008.
The initial symptoms of the diseases are tiny, elongated yellow lesions, which develop a pale yellow-green halo as they increase in size.
The lesions later develop an orange or orange-brown colour but they never turn dark brown.
Orange rust does not affect the quality of the sugar itself, but depresses the yield or sucrose content of the cane leading to less juice being extracted.