By Loucoumane Coulibaly
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Improved sunshine across parts of Ivory Coast's main cocoa growing regions, after weeks of overcast skies, has improved the outlook for the forthcoming main crop, farmers said on Tuesday, but fears of disease caused by cool temperatures persist.
The 2012/13 season in the world's top cocoa grower officially opens on October 1 with the start of main crop harvesting.
While abundant seasonal rains had raised farmers' expectations for the upcoming harvest, several weeks of cloud cover and cool weather have hindered proper bean drying and sparked an outbreak of fungal black pod disease on many plantations.
Farmers in western regions, however, said light rains coupled with a return of sunshine last week could reverse the trend and improve both quality and volumes at the beginning of the main crop.
In the western region of Soubre, in the heart of the cocoa belt, one analyst reported 10 millimeters of rainfall compared with none the previous week.
"The sun is starting to come out. It's good because the trees need it right now," said Salam Kone, who farms near Soubre.
"We need more sunshine to properly dry the beans, because the farmers are starting to harvest in certain areas. In two weeks' time, the cocoa activity will really be going again," he said.
In the southeastern region of Aboisso, an analyst reported 5.3 mm of rainfall, compared with nil the previous week. Farmers said they hoped the return of sunny conditions would help contain a recent black pod outbreak there.
"We have a lot of well-developed and nearly ripe pods on the trees. We hope that the weather will be warmer over the next weeks to stop the spread of black pod, which is threatening the pods," said farmer Jean Tano.
"The trees are still flowering. It's a sign that the main crop will be long and abundant," he added.
Conditions also improved in the western region of Daloa, which is responsible for about a quarter of Ivory Coast's national output.
"We have registered light rainfall and overcast conditions with occasionally good sunshine," said Attoungbre Kouame, who farms near Daloa.
"The weather could help the growth of small pods."
Similar growing conditions were reported in western regions of Bouafle, Gagnoa, and Duekoue and in southern regions of Agboville and Divo.
In the eastern region of Abengourou, one analyst said no rain was reported for the third consecutive week.
"We're seeing black pod. The skies are overcast, and it is very cool. We're worried that a lot of pods will be hit by disease," said local farmer Michel Koffi.
Months of poor conditions continued in the coastal regions of Sassandra and San Pedro, where a lack of rainfall during the rainy season has now been made worse by cool temperatures and cloudy skies.
"We are very disappointed this year. There aren't enough pods on the trees to ensure a good main crop. Not only have the rains been too poor, but right now the plantations are not getting any sun," said farmer Labbe Zoungrana.
(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Editing by Joe Bavier and Anthony Barker)