Harvesting strategies during a drought

Editorial, Normal

The National, Wednesday September 30th, 2015

 During ‘mid drought’, soil is dry and the growth of plants is very slow because of the shortage of water. 

Plant roots can grow deep into the soil to find what little moisture is available. 

However, damage to roots reduces the amount of water that a plant can obtain. 

Plants lose water because of evaporation from the leaves. 

There is more evaporation from the bottom side of the leaf than from the top. 

The less damage caused to the leaves and roots, the longer the crop will be able to keep growing.

When a drought occurs, nobody can be sure how long it will last. 

It is important to let a garden continue producing as long as possible to provide food for the family. 

During such times, old gardens that may have been abandoned may still be able to provide some food to help. 

Protect these gardens from damage by pigs and fire because, while they may not produce a lot of food, the little extra may be very useful.


Minimise Leaf Disturbance

For crops that are harvested overtime, such as sweet potato or kaukau, disturbance to leaves should be minimised. 

This includes reducing visits to gardens. 

Disturbance to leaves causes exposure of underside of leaves to the sun, which will increase the evapo-transpiration and put plants under more stress. 

This is particularly so with sweet potato, but occurs to some extent with all crops. 

When you have to walk through the garden, cause as little disturbance to the leaves as possible.

Harvest the crop from only one area of the garden at the same time, selecting tubers that are ready from that section only. 

The next time you harvest, start from where you finished and start from there rather than going to a different section of the garden, as this will cause disturbance to a lot more plants and reduce their growth.


Minimise Root Disturbance

When in gardens, it is important to reduce disturbance to the soil and surrounding plants. 

When tubers are harvested, the remaining roots of the plant are damaged. 

This reduces its ability to get water out of the soil. 

The roots of neighbouring plants are also disturbed. 

As the ground is dry, the plants will not be able to grow more roots quickly to help recovery.

When the plant is harvested, fill in the hole with any loose soil. This will help protect the roots still feeding the plant.


Protection during harvest

Some level of protection must be practiced for crops that are removed altogether during a harvest, especially during a mid drought period. 

When taro is harvested, for example, the whole plant is removed. When the leaves dry and the corms are harvested as required, the garden should be protected from pigs and rats as much as possible.

In other areas where the taro leaves do not dry off, it is best to take out individual plants throughout the garden. 

This will reduce the competition between plants and allow the remaining ones to have better access to the water in the soil. 

When doing this, it is important to cause as little disturbance to surrounding plants as possible.


Managing Sago 

Sago is an important food crop. 

In some areas, it is the main source of food, while in many others, it is an important secondary food to yams, taro, sweet potato and banana.

How can we make sure that there will be sago available when a drought occurs?

  • Sago will survive long periods of drought where other crops may not grow, or die.
  • Use your experience – Know where your sago grows. Know what areas are accessible even in very dry years. Know also where there is permanent water to wash the sago even in very dry years, whether this is from rivers and creeks, or swampy areas, springs or wells that can be dug into the ground for water.
  • Fire destroys many areas of sago during droughts, when the normally swampy areas dry out. Removing the dry leaves from the trees and rubbish from the ground can help reduce the effect of fire if it burns the stand. A fire break around the stand can help stop a fire entering the stand.
  • Washing sago and storing it helps ensure that there will be food available if the sago is difficult to access. The most important thing for good storage is to wash and strain the sago well so that there is no fibre left in the washed sago. When this is done, drying will allow it to be stored for long periods in good condition. After drying sago can be stored in the house, where it is often kept above the fire so that the smoke will help preserve it.
  • In some areas people sometimes roast pieces of the sago in the fire straight from the tree. Some sago has less fibre and is easier to eat this way. But if it becomes impossible to process the sago because of shortage of water, this can be a way of ensuring there is some food available, even if it is not very palatable.

As a long term measure, if there is a shortage of sago growing in accessible areas with a good permanent water supply, think about planting trees in good areas so that in the future the problem of shortage will not be so bad. 

In some areas people plant all of their sago trees, in other areas, it grows wild and none is planted, but if you have experienced shortages in the past, this may be a useful way to improve your supply. 

After planting, a tree may take fifteen years or more before it matures, but it is an investment to make life easier in the future, or for your children.