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FOR WHAT ITS WORTH: Agricultural icon

Dr Frances Chandler

FOR WHAT ITS WORTH: Agricultural icon

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Most people remain steadfastly within the comfort zone of their chosen careers. It’s not often that you meet people with many and diverse interests and a genuine desire to help with all good causes. Neither is it common to see people pursue innovative projects with enthusiasm and energy at age 81. The late Keith Laurie, OBE, was one of those rare people.

He was a firm advocate of agriculture, particularly the sugar industry, the environment, food security and our natural and built heritage. His obituary says it well.

Apart from being committed to his family and his church, he was “agriculturalist, honorary consul to Haiti, senator, environmentalist , inventor, rum connoisseur, proud contributor to the National Trust, the sugar industry, the Barbados Agricultural Society, the Barbados Museum, the Barbados German Shepherd and Kennel clubs, the Caribbean Permaculture Research Institute”.

In addition, he always looked for ways to turn problems into opportunities. Most of us would be familiar with his proposal to can and export the giant African snail and that he “walked the talk” by actually cooking and eating the snails himself.

Mr Laurie was one of the early students of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture at St Augustine, Trinidad, where he qualified as a sugar technologist. He then worked in Trinidad and St Kitts before returning to Barbados.

He was a trustee and many times president of the Barbados Association of Technologists in Agriculture (BSTA), which was born out of the 1930s Sugar Technologists Association. He, together with Harm De Boer, was instrumental in widening the scope of the association to embrace other agricultural disciplines besides sugar.

I’ve been a member of that organisation for many years and enjoyed the camaraderie of monthly meetings at the Laurie home. BSTA has attempted to use its collective knowledge and experience to advise Government on various agricultural issues. Most recently, Mr Laurie spearheaded the development of an alternative rescue plan for the sugar industry. Whether or not this will be considered is left to be seen.

My first memory of him is in the early 1970s when he worked with the Canadian-funded Comfith project which successfully used the pith of the sugar cane to produce animal feed and the rind to make building material. He noted then: “It has been the dream of the sugar industry to develop a by-product or co-product that could share equally with the major product sugar in the cost of growing and processing the sugar cane crop of the world. The interest in by-product has always been in direct ratio to the price obtained for raw sugar by the mills. Since the price has fluctuated drastically over the years, there has been no sustained effort to develop the by-products as is a feature of agro-industry in the more developed countries of the world – a feature which could help to stabilise the income of growers and processor alike.

“It has not been the lack of research work on by-products that has hampered the commercial development but the absence of developmental capital and entrepreneurial skills available to take the research results and translate them into economically viable operations. This situation of borderline economic returns, coupled with the traditional conservatism of the sugar industry, has hampered the necessary investment in by-product processing, leaving us today, with few exceptions, with an industry totally dependent on sugar sales with only minor income from its by-products.”

Over 40 years later that position still stands despite a similar cane separation proposal being put forward again in 2003.

Mr Laurie firmly believed in the use of local inputs in agriculture. Not long ago some of us accompanied him to the “dump” at Lonesome Hill to investigate how these organic waste materials could be used as fertilisers, since we noted the improved growth in a nearby sugar cane field where the waste had flowed during heavy rains. We also remember his involvement in a Blackbelly sheep feed lot which tested the use of local feed materials.

Although I see a glimmer of hope from time to time, I worry about the future of our agriculture. Unless the younger generation can be persuaded to emulate people like the late Keith Laurie, and realise that agriculture is not a bad word but an honourable profession and that we need to help to feed ourselves, we could end up in a precarious position.

May Mr Laurie rest in peace.

• Dr Frances Chandler is a former independent senator.