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Sugar holds key to non-sugar crops

Patrick Bethel

Sugar holds key  to non-sugar crops

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The efficient cultivation of sugar cane is essential for the cultivation of non-sugar crops.
EGB Gooding, a world-renowned Barbadian agronomist, carried out research on over 60 tropical crops and concluded that for our local conditions, it is essential to include sugar cane in our crop rotations.
Throughout the history of Barbados, the production of non-sugar crops has kept a close relationship to the acreage of sugar cane cultivation. In the 1960s sugar was harvested from 52 000 acres and non-sugar crops were harvested from 13 000 acres.
By 2005 the figure in cane was reduced to 20 000 acres and that of non-sugar crops reduced to 5 000 acres.
Often we hear that we sell sugar for much less than its cost of production and therefore we should abandon its cultivation.
Is this a fair comment?
Are there other national benefits attached to the sugar industry which are overlooked and which will have to be borne by the society at much greater costs?
1) Employment
The sugar industry directly employs about 2 500 workers who support approximately 7 000 dependents.
This does not include people employed in the ancillary services supporting the sugar industry such as welders, mechanics, masons, carpenters and input suppliers or hardware suppliers.
If these jobs are lost, there is no other area to absorb this level of unemployment nor of the skill sets many of these employees possess.
Many of them will become a direct charge on the NIS. In the United States, it is estimated that one farmer generates 40 jobs.
2) Production of Non-Sugar Crops
The acreage grown in non-sugar crops is directly influenced by the acreage grown in sugar cane.
There are major agronomic reasons for this. Our soils are very shallow and primarily of a clay nature.
They ideally require 30 tonnes of organic matter per acre every six months to maintain good tilth.
The sugar cane trash, and especially the roots, provide this necessary organic matter when incorporated into the soil.
Without this return of organic matter our soils become very hard and cloddy and yields of other crops quickly fall off.
Fields which come out of several years of properly cultivated sugar cane are also considerably weed free thus allowing the cultivation of non-sugar crops with reduced levels of expensive herbicides and a reduction in hand labour.
These conditions will usually last for 18 months after which the land should revert to sugar cane cultivation. One local farm produces over a million pounds of sweet potatoes per year in rotation with sugar cane cultivation.
3) Reduction of Flooding
The sugar cane plant with its heavy leafy canopy and thick trash blanket on the soil protects the soil from erosion and runoff during heavy downpours.
This can be dramatically seen around areas which have been developed and where blocked drains require frequent cleaning.
4) Tourism Benefits
What monetary value can be ascribed to an orderly and tidy countryside with neatly manicured fields of sugar cane?
Do we wish to become like Antigua or St Kitts? Do we wish the whole of Barbados to become like the Scotland District?
It will only take three to four years for this to occur.
5) Provision of Foreign Exchange
Unlike the tourism industry it has been estimated that the sugar industry only requires 15 per cent of its earned foreign exchange to support its inputs.
Thus 85 per cent of the foreign exchange earned by the sugar industry stays in Barbados, the complete opposite of the tourist industry.
6) Reduction of Marijuana Cultivation
Barbados has a ready local market for marijuana. Even with the coastguard, the coastal radar and the air wing of the RSS, the importation of this drug into Barbados has become more challenging.
As demand increases for this product there will be an increase in its local cultivation. As more land is removed from sugar cane cultivation, some of this land will be and is being used to grow this crop.
This can be seen by the increasing seizures of locally cultivated marijuana by the police and defence forces, the largest to date being in the Cherry Tree Hill area.
This has serious consequences for all Barbadians. These producers are known to protect their property very aggressively and I predict that if we do not win this battle, there will be parts of Barbados that Barbadians will not be able to go.
In addition, it will place considerable strains on the security forces who will need additional costly resources to deal with this threat.
7) Increase in Health Costs
As more land is abandoned from the cultivation of sugar cane, homeowners will use the areas nearer to their homes, such as abandoned cart roads, to dump their garbage.
This is already happening and can be seen when the area is subsequently burnt by bush fires. This will have serious consequences to our vulnerable water supply as leachate from garbage contaminates the ground water.
As the abandoned land is overtaken by bush, shrubs, trees and in particular cow itch vines, as can be seen on several estates in St John, some homeowners may burn the areas around their houses in the dry season, when the cow itch pods are ripe, to get rid of it.
This can result in out of control bush fires which inevitably will destroy some houses. It will also have very negative effects on people with respiratory issues as well as turning our countryside into a blackened mess.
The Barbados Fire Service is not equipped to fight these types of fires on an extensive scale and will need additional costly specialised equipment and an increase in their staffing.
Finally, as large areas of sugar cane are abandoned and rat baiting is reduced, the rodent population will expand exponentially with the year round supply of food from the abandoned cane.
This will result in an increase in leptospirosis and other rodent borne diseases, as is currently happening.
 Tomorrow:  Bethell continues his focus on other aspects of the sugar industry.