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Crop shortage: nightmare before Christmas

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Tom Wadson, of Wadson Farm, holds his last bag of cassava (photo by Nicola Muirhead)

Two of Bermuda’s most festive fixtures are in perilously short supply – cassava and poinsettia plants.

After a particularly brutal hurricane season with back-to-back visits from Fay and Gonzalo, both crops are either in short supply or not quite up to par compared with previous years.

Farmers, growers and retailers have taken a blow to their businesses, while customers are wondering what plants to decorate their houses with and how on earth to replace the traditional cassava pie.

Poinsettias are the image of Christmas with their deep red, velvety leaves and at this time of year they are the most popular purchase at the nurseries besides Christmas trees. There are several poinsettia growers on the Island and most of them experienced some disruption as a result of the storms.

Farmer Carlos Amaral of Amaral Farms was able to salvage only 200 plants from up to 900 after Gonzalo ripped the roof off his greenhouses, exposing the plants to severe elements.

“It caused a lot of wind and salt damage to the crop and they are such a tender leaf crop,” he said.

“Generally when we get in to the months of September, October and November there isn’t a whole heap of vegetable production going on so this crop helps farmers to offset big expenses in the New Year.

“We’ve had issues in the past but to have two back-to-back storms like that... there was no way we were going to be able to reapply the roofing material in time. We could have sent them to a warehouse facility, but it would have been near impossible – the downside is that they don’t have any natural light, so it’s catch 22.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches – you have to be thick skinned and hard headed to be in this industry. But I say a little of something is better than a lot of nothing.”

Mr Amaral was able to supply a few customers who had pre-ordered the plants – mainly the churches. The ones who missed out included retailers and garden markets.

The damaged plants won’t entirely go to waste – they will be used as mother plants for next year’s crops. Mr Amaral added: “We should be OK for next year – it’s just a lot more work.”

Produce manager for Harrington Hundreds Gary Skinner is certainly feeling the hit. He said he can’t remember a worse year for the plant at the supermarket where he has worked for 16 years. He said: “This year I haven’t got any – I usually have them by Thanksgiving. The farmers told me it is very bleak this year.

“Every Christmas I get through ten dozen plants so we‘ve taken a lick and so have the farmers. It takes a part of the Christmas spirit away doesn’t it?”

Aberfeldy Nurseries usually shifts up to 10,000 poinsettias each Christmas season, mostly to corporate offices, homeowners and hotels. Some of the crop was also damaged after the greenhouses were damaged in the storms.

Julie Greaves, general manager at Aberfeldy Nurseries, said while there were still plenty of plants left at the nursery, some were not in perfect shape and will be sold off at a discount:

“We have had some lovely poinsettias. Some of them aren’t as nice quality but we do still have some good ones.

“We had to tell people no orders because it’s even more difficult to call people up and say we can’t deliver. We didn’t know we could fulfil it so it’s been tricky.

“We have mainly red, but we have some whites, the pinks and a few bright orange and a couple of marble ones but not in the numbers we’ve had.”

Asked what a good alternative could be for this year, she suggested red impatiens which are outdoor hanging plants but can be brought inside for the day.

As for the delicious, subtly sweet cassava pie, it maybe in even shorter local supply than the poinsettias as a result of the storms. Tom Wadson, of Wadson’s Farm, said: “We are digging pounds when we normally dig hundreds of pounds.”

He said his crop was coming on beautifully – the tallest cassava plants he had seen — until Fay and Gonzalo toppled them.

“So it rolls the cassava over and what happens is, if the root snaps off from the stem, it’s done.

“It will sour very quickly and it basically rots.

“The little bit that we did dig was fabulous – it’s all gone. We sold out weeks ago. You couldn’t even get close to it.

“I can say I am so sorry to the public but I’m not going to apologise to my banker!”

Julie Graystone works at Bouquet Garni Gourmet Foods in conjunction with Windy Bank Farm.

She said: “I didn’t think I was going to get cassava this year – we sell it at the farm but I also make the pies myself. I’ve been doing that for 15 years, always getting the cassava from Percy Powell.

“He said there was just too much work to clear the area that it was in and then pull it out. I got a little bit.

“There was major disappointment when I was telling people we didn’t think we could get it and as a customer myself that uses local cassava, I thought do I want to use cassava? I said do I want to use imported cassava? And I thought no, because imported cassava is so different than local cassava.”

Carlos Amaral waters his remaining poinsettia plants, which will be just enough to fill his annual Christmas pre-orders (Photo by Mark Tatem)