Tuesday, April 23, 2024

EDITORIAL: Farmers get short end of sugar stick


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The current story of Barbados’ sugar industry has become like what the old folks called “a recurring decimal” – the same old complaint.

The 2014 sugar harvest has closed and it would appear that before the factory could cool properly, one key stakeholder, the cane grower, is worried that the agriculture policymakers are not sharing with them their intentions for the industry.

Sugar has served us well. Our development owes much to this sector, and even today while it is just a shadow of its former self, it is still important to the generation of foreign exchange and the maintenance of jobs. As a nation we have to treat the various players with greater respect.

Chairman of Barbados Sugar Industries Limited, Patrick Bethell, a respected farmer, just yesterday drew reference to something we all know but at times take for granted – agriculture is hard work and Mother Nature, on whom the farmer depends for his survival, can at times be his greatest enemy.

For much of last year and the early part of this year, the island was gripped by a severe dry spell that facilitated a large number of fires which destroyed many acres of ripe, freshly cut and new canes, all of which will combine to reduce the farmer’s earnings at the next harvest.

Now add to that the fact that he has been complaining for years that Government has been talking about a major restructuring of the sugar industry to a sugar cane industry but has been very limited with the detail. It would be okay to tell the farmers to just relax and wait for the disclosures from the state, were it not for the fact that planning for specific outputs in five years require significant groundwork today.

As our sugar farmers have said repeatedly, it is unreasonable to expect them to spend their own money on the preparation of fields and the planting of canes, when they have no idea what the specific details of the Government’s plans for the sector entail.

Their position is even more understandable when we recognise that they are operating in a sector where profit margins are thin to non-existent. As one St Peter farmer pointed out earlier this year, it made more economic sense at the time to let nearly 200 acres of ripe canes rot in the field than to incur the additional cost of hiring mechanical harvesters to reap them.

Interestingly, it would appear that most farmers are not even disposed to pressuring Government to have every aspect of its plan perfected at this stage, but merely want it to take them into its confidence by sharing enough information to make them feel like genuine partners. We suspect that failure to do this will see the industry reach the point in a few years where we have a brand new state-of-the-art sugar factory with numerous related facilities, but the only ones growing canes to feed its mills will be the Government-run estates.

While there are many questions, there also appears to be much merit in Government’s approach to a resuscitated sugar cane industry, but its failure to engage key players and the long periods of apparent dormancy do nothing to build confidence.

It’s time that no less a person than Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick steps up to the plate and gives leadership to this exercise.


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