Mauritius | Agro & Food

October 20, 2015

In Mauritius, Gourmet Rice Points to a Brighter Future

In tropical Mauritius, where the change of seasons is muted, the blooming sugar cane flower is a sure indicator of the beginning of another autumn.

The sugar cane and its seasonal fireworks — a sudden explosion of dusty color just above the 3-meter-high, or 10-foot-high, cane — have been a big part of island life since the 17th century. Dutch colonizers started growing sugar cane for the production of arrack, a strong, clear, distilled liquor they had discovered in Southeast Asia.

Sugar became the island’s biggest industry — first as raw material for distillers, then as a commodity shipped around the world. Even into the 1970s, sugar represented roughly 95 percent of Mauritian gross domestic product, and cane was grown on a third of the island’s land.

But fierce global competition, the rise of new cane-growing superpowers — China, Pakistan and Brazil — and waning preferred treatment from the European market have taken their toll on sugar prices. Although still grown on about a fourth of the island, sugar this year will represent only about 1 percent of the island’s G.D.P.

This perfect storm is leading sugar cane farmers here to look for ways to shore up their income, and their future. While some smaller farmers have simply abandoned their land, larger commercial farms are starting to look for alternatives — from tourism to real estate sales to, increasingly, higher-value crops that can be sold around the world at premium prices.

“No one is talking about giving up sugar,” said Michael Teig Rountree, who runs Bel Air, a 390-hectare, or 965-acre, sugar farm that has been in his family since his ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the early 19th century. “Sugar cane has had its ups and downs. But it’s quite different this time.”

Having tried livestock feeds like alfalfa, soybeans and corn, Mr. Rountree, whose farm sits on the lush southern side of the island, stumbled on something promising: a premium rice, destined for health-conscious and well-off consumers in Europe and the United States.

While Mighty Rice, as it is called, was developed by cross-pollination in Bangladesh, its slick black-and-white packaging exalts the volcanic soil and rain-fed streams of Mauritius — marketing the benefits of the place it is grown as much as the food.

The rice, which is grown on dry land and so can be easily integrated into traditional farms, yields between four and six tons per hectare at a fixed price to farmers of $800 per ton, earning them as much as $4,800 per hectare. Sugar, by contrast, has an average yield of eight tons per hectare. At this year’s price of $360 a ton, that comes to $2,880 per hectare.

The retail price for Mighty Rice is higher as well. On the shelves of the California supermarket chain Raley’s, a 15-ounce bag sells for $4.99, which is seven to eight times more than the price for the same quantity of white cane sugar in the same store.

“When we started growing rice here, the people thought we were insane,” said Herman Suhirman of Vita Rice, a Mauritian company that started growing Mighty Rice in 2009 on its own 400-hectare farm, which was formerly the site of a state-owned sugar farm. This year’s harvest will be his third to be available commercially, and already there are early signs of success. The company has produced 1,470 tons of rice in one year and is poised to sell some 40,000 15-ounce bags in the United States — so far its main export market.

The rice carries a certification guaranteeing that it is not genetically modified and free of arsenic — the latter a potential contaminate in other commercially available rice.

While the rice is not yet certified as organic, Mauritian rice farmers are taking no chances, fertilizing their fields with molasses to avoid anything that could affect the end product.

“We are looking for soft options” for pest control and fertilization, said Bill Hoare, an Australian who runs Vita Rice’s rice farm. “It’s cheaper and it’s better for the rice.”

Premium rice is just one of the products farmers around the world are using to replace commodity crops, said Luis A. Ribera, a professor in the Department of Agriculture at Texas A&M University. The state of Tamaulipas in Mexico, for example, has all but abandoned dry hay, corn and other row crops for irrigated vegetables destined for supermarket shelves in the United States. In some cases vegetables replacing row crops or cane in Central and South America are grown organically and sold at a premium.

“As crop land is reducing, population is increasing and purchasing power from both developed and developing countries is on the rise, more and more emphasis is given to demand-driven production,” Mr. Ribera wrote in an email.

Sophie Desvaux de Marigny, the head of communication at Medine, once one of the largest commercial sugar plantations in Mauritius, agreed. When a case brought to the World Trade Organization in 2004 first threatened the guaranteed price of Mauritian sugar on the European market, Medine, which owns farmland covering 5 percent of the island, decided to revamp its business, establishing separate property and leisure clusters and detailing a 25-year master plan.

Although Medine’s sugar and rum are still exported — the company is even actively reclaiming fallow land to expand its agriculture division — it now grows vegetables for local consumption, rents out office space, runs a resort village and attracts international tourists to its nature safari park.

“At this point you want to produce something value-added,” Ms. Desvaux de Marigny said.

The Mauritius Sugar Syndicate, which represents local sugar growers and millers abroad, has invested in marketing so-called special sugars — various shades and grain sizes of brown cane sugar — that can be sold directly to consumers and commands a premium price.

Lately the syndicate has been promoting Fairtrade sugar, of which it hopes to export 40,000 tons next year, a little less than 10 percent of all Mauritian sugar sold abroad. “The next phase is going to be all about sustainability,” said Devesh Dukhira, who runs the syndicate.

Now in his second year of growing Mighty Rice, Mr. Rountree has planted about 63 hectares of the crop on his farm. The rice, which stands no taller than half a meter when fully mature, is dwarfed by the surrounding cane, but it allows the passer-by to look out past the field to palm trees, mountains and the light-blue Indian Ocean.

Remarking how nice such a view must appear to tourists, Mr. Rountree said: “It’s almost as if the rice is a solution for problems we didn’t even know we had.”

Text by The New York Times

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