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EDITORIAL: Sugar pain for farmers


EDITORIAL: Sugar pain for farmers

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BY NOW IT MUST BE CLEAR to Barbadians keeping a close watch on the local sugar industry that there is not a lot of sweetness in it for some of the key players.

It appears that a number of the players want to see the industry resuscitated, but there continues to be the absence of a comprehensive plan that has the support of all stakeholders. It also appears that the industry has been languishing for so long that getting the sector viable again will call for not just growing more sugar cane, but a whole harvest of confidence as well.

For when growers are sending home workers on the eve of February, a time when traditionally they would be ramping up activities in preparation for reaping, it suggests the industry is heading in the wrong direction. A lot of the uncertainty and apprehension the growers face seems to stem from the failure of the policymakers in the sector to communicate effectively.

In many ways these growers are hostages to circumstance, and for the wrong reasons. Once a farmer has invested in the cultivation of a field of sugar cane, he is stuck with it for a number of years if he doesn’t want to increase the potential for huge losses. It can take years, and at least four or five harvests from the same fields, to recover the investment and record a profit – in a sense putting him at the mercy of decision-makers.

It would seem, under the circumstances, that many of the cane farmers are growing by faith. How else can one rationalise the situation, as explained by president of Barbados Sugar Industry Limited, Patrick Bethell, in which farmers don’t yet know what will be the final price of the cane they sold since last year – and still don’t have a clue what they will get for the harvest they are hoping to begin reaping in the next few weeks?

And while the importance of a sensible payment structure and the keeping of commitments when payments become due are critical to the success of sugar, like any other industry, it is also clear that other deep-seated challenges are retarding the resuscitation of the sector.

That farmers are complaining that plans are apparently progressing for a new sugar cane industry, yet, as the people who will provide the raw material for the mills, they are still in the dark about a lot of what is occurring, should not be taken lightly.

We are sure the key decision-makers know even better than us that sugar cane does not grow like potatoes or carrots. You don’t plant today and reap in a few weeks or months. Freshly planted canes in any year usually skip one harvest before they are ready for cutting.

Any further delay in cutting now and a refusal or inability to plant this year will slow down the momentum towards a revitalised industry, and it does not matter whether or not there is a new factory.

We suggest that the decision-makers in the Ministry of Agriculture and elsewhere demonstrate to the farmers that they recognise their worth and importance to the industry, especially since the plan calls for them to grow more than sugar cane to keep the furnaces of the proposed new factory burning.

We share the view of Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick and BSIL head Bethell that there is potentially much life left in a retooled sugar cane industry, but the failure to mobilise and empower any one sector could make the road back much harder than it has to be.