It was noted recently that while most people understand agriculture and tourism, they don’t really understand the financial services sector. On the contrary, in spite of the fact that Barbadians have practised agriculture for over 300 years, many people, especially those who make decisions which affect the industry, still don’t seem to understand agriculture. The result has been a severe decline in the sector.
This is unfortunate in view of the expected increases in global demand for food and fibre over the next decade as well as the continued demand for biofuels. (www.cropsite.com). As I have been repeating ad nauseam, we in Barbados need to ensure that our agriculture is sustainable and that we become as food secure as possible.
I have observed that as elections draw near, there is more and more talk about the importance of agriculture and more concern being expressed about the perennial problem of praedial larceny by people who I didn’t even think could pronounce the word agriculture (actually some can’t). All of a sudden they seem to have found their voices and everyone has a solution.
But there is no quick fix to the problems that have been left unattended and festering for decades. The powers that be need to understand agriculture. They need to understand that agriculture deals with living organisms which have a specific life cycle. You cannot delay a decision affecting action to be taken during the early growth of a plant until when the plant is matured and expect to have a positive result. Action taken too late is a waste of time and resources.
With long-term crops like sugar cane which takes 18 months (plant cane) and 12 months (ratoons) to mature, the lack of a timely decision in 2012 is far reaching and affects the 2013 and 2014 crops.
For example, if, because of a lack of decision on the future of the sugar industry, farmers decide not to plant canes or not to apply fertilizer to their ratoons, even if the delayed decision is made eventually, it can have no beneficial effect on the next two crops, since the time for these two activities would have passed. As the saying goes “there is no point in fertilizing old canes”.
Furthermore, when the powers that be do not make timely decisions and this in turn causes farmers to be undecided about their future, they do not order inputs and the input suppliers delay the imports of these inputs to reduce their risk. Since these are mostly imported there will be a time lag between ordering and availability.
Consequently, when a decision is eventually made, there is often a shortage of the necessary inputs on the island, and the agronomic practices cannot be carried out . . . the result: a further slippage of the industry into oblivion.
Apart from the financial decisions in the sugar industry, other decisions can be equally damaging . . . . Delayed harvesting results in dried out, overmatured plants with reduced quality and yield.
The start of crop seems to be late every year for one reason or another. Sometimes it is the fault of the factories not being ready, some years it is wage negotiations. Weather, of course, can cause the delay but this is not under our control. If we understood agriculture, there would be no man-made constraints to the early start of the sugar cane harvest.
Then there are the bank holidays. Stopping and starting a sugar factory is not conducive to efficiency. There are at least four and possibly five bank holidays during the harvest season. As far as I am aware, hotels and the emergency services don’t shut down during these holidays. How come the sugar industry is expected to?
The dairy industry is under siege at the moment. Dairy animals have specific life cycles. It is pointless telling farmers to produce more milk (which involves investing in more animals) and after a year, telling them that they now need to produce less milk. The cows are not fitted with taps which can be turned off and on at will.
We must decide whether the goal is to develop a local dairy industry or to support dairy industries elsewhere by using their milk powder. The dairy and the farmers must come together and find a compromise which benefits both parties.
It may call for greater efficiency on both sides, better promotion and marketing, timely intervention by Government in resolving trade problems and possibly a subsidy for the industry as takes place, I understand, in most parts of the world.
In short, those who make decisions in agriculture need to understand the industry and if they don’t, they need to listen to those who do.
• The Agro-doc has over 40 years experience in agriculture in Barbados, operating at different levels of the sector. Send any questions or comments to: The Agro-doc, C/o Nation Publishing Co. Ltd, Fontabelle, St Michael.