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Uphill battle for agriculture


Natasha Beckles

Uphill battle for agriculture

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THE FATE OF LOCAL AGRICULTURE hangs in the balance as several players in the sector express concern about how the industry will fare in 2011.
Representatives of various subsets within agriculture highlighted a wide range of challenges when they spoke to BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY last week.
Chief executive officer of the Barbados Agricultural Society, James Paul, said farmers would need to work on maintaining a competitive edge and achieving efficiency in production.
While Paul said he anticipated the current economic climate would pose some challenges for the sector, he noted that if the major world economies rebounded as was expected, the cost of inputs would increase.
He added that the agricultural sector had to recognise and respond to changing consumer tastes.
“A lot of people are being exposed to North America and are becoming more cosmopolitan. Agriculturalists have to remain relevant,” he said.
“We need to work on our marketing initiatives and our packaging to make our products more attractive. Many people eat something not because it’s nutritious but because of how it looks,” Paul noted.
The CEO went on to say that the ongoing international currency war could pose problems for agriculture.
He said while there has been an ease in commodity speculation, it will increase as competitive devaluation continues.
Paul said farmers needed to start forming partnerships with local retailers in an effort to service them better.
He, therefore, made a case for the development of value chains based on commodity lines, which he said would bring together all those who play a role in distribution from farmers to consumers.
Paul noted that this would increase the value of various commodities by giving the consumer a better understanding of what goes into production.
Meanwhile, Anthony Sobers, a director of the Barbados Pig Farmers’ Co-operative Society, said difficulties caused by the passage of Tropical Storm Tomas could carry over into 2011 for some farmers.
“We have not assessed it but there is some damage to infrastructure which will impact on farmer’s operations,” he said.
In addition, Sobers said the price of animal feed had increased and consumers could expect the price of pork to go up. He noted that although there had been a moderate fall-off in the demand for pork it was not enough to cause farmers to leave the industry.
“We’re not losing a lot of people.
Some farmers have reduced their operations but there is still demand,” Sobers said.
He noted that the genetic material of the local stock needed to be improved and this could only be done through research and development.
“Due to the nature of the industry and the cost, this can only be done by Government,” he said, adding that farmers needed access to development expertise.
“We need more pigs to be born per sow. We need them to grow faster so they can be ready for the market in five months as this would lead to greater revenue,” he stated.
Sobers acknowledged that the demand for pork was not increasing “in the way we would want”.
The new year is expected to be especially challenging for the sugar industry, and chairman of Barbados Sugar Industries Limited (BSIL), Dr Atlee Brathwaite, identified several concerns that will need to be addressed.  
He said the industry lost approximately 700 to 1 000 acres per year and it was difficult to get working capital to finance the crop.
“The mobilisation of money for the industry is not easy, seeing as it is not profitable. It is difficult to convince financial institutions to lend for working capital,” Brathwaite noted.
Furthermore, he said, the cost of inputs including fertilisers, weedicides and insecticides is rising.
Brathwaite also noted that sugar producers were still unsure about what the future held and although successive governments had verbally stated their support, the industry would like a land use policy to be instituted, since this would address whether Government was taking action to ensure a certain percentage of acreage remained in sugar production.
The chairman said BSIL would also be “critically looking at going to one factory” since “the economics suggest” we only need one factory that could produce energy products as well as specialised sugar.
Brathwaite added that the intensive research that was being carried out on high fibre cane would be discontinued.
“We’ve carried out trials on high fibre cane, which is a better feeder stock for energy, [but] you can also use a normal cane which produces a fair amount of sugar and a fair amount of bagasse or fibre.
“High fibre sugar limits the ability to produce alcohol so it’s better to have a dual purpose cane. We will continue to produce some high fibre cane since it is useful in starting up the factory,” he said.
Meanwhile, chairman of the Barbados Dairy & Beef Producers Association, Paul Davis, told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY this year was probably the most challenging year that industry had had for a long time.
“Our costs have certainly increased. For example, we had a recent 30 per cent increase in the price of feed. Also, there has been an increase in the cost of electricity, as well as water, which has doubled since 2009,” he said.
Furthermore, Davis, who is a director of the country’s lone milk processor – Pine Hill Dairy – said diesel was still going up and dairy farmers had been pressured to increase wages because the spending power was less than what it was before.
“We’re really in a very challenged position. The components that go into our feed such as corn and soya bean are on the rise again. They retreated a little [last] week but they certainly are on the rise to nearly twice what they were a year and a half ago,” he said.
Davis said beef and dairy farmers were hoping for an improvement in the tourist season not only in numbers but in the spending of the tourists.
“Whether they buy our product directly or they contribute to the income of people who buy our product, it’s a valuable input for us,” he said.
Davis noted that farmers were limited in their ability to expand because of the reproductive numbers of livestock in Barbados and said the industry was seeking Government’s assistance in expanding herds.  

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