LAST WEEK I said the sugar cane (rather than sugar) industry can succeed. But urgent changes are necessary.
First, those in authority and everyone else must appreciate that sugar production, and indeed agriculture generally, is a science.
The mere fact that our agriculture ministry was once the “Ministry of Agriculture, Science and Technology” implies that these three are considered different areas.
In the past, sugar cane growers were skilled in the production process. Even if some may not have known the scientific reason for certain actions, they knew what had to be done and when.
With time, the management and sometimes the ownership of sugar cane farms has fallen into the hands of those with no background or experience in farming, and this precision has been lost.
Unfortunately, there are “some who don’t know and don’t know that they don’t know”. Today, it seems to be widely felt that you throw a few cane plants in the soil at any time and look back at them when you decide to harvest (rather than when the crop is at the optimal stage of maturity), then chop them down and pass them through a factory whose operational efficiency may or may not be optimal, and high quality sugar and molasses will result.
There’s one plantation that was rated number two out of 35 farms in production of sugar per acre in 2011. The owner/manager who was advancing in age sold the plantation. That plantation now lies near the bottom of the list.
We keep hearing “Barbados is a high-cost producer of sugar, so drop it in favour of tourism”. Isn’t Barbados also one of the highest cost tourism destinations? Yet we don’t throw our hands in the air and say we can’t compete. We try to brand our tourism and make it unique.
We need the same approach with sugar cane and its products. For years industry players have known that selling bulk sugar wasn’t sustainable. But government is the sole exporter of sugar. For years we’ve heard that they’re discontinuing bulk sugar exports, yet export continues at a loss.
Furthermore, we compound this by using foreign exchange to import sugar and sell that at a loss, since the bulk sugar price is controlled. Why is this? It could hardly be considered a staple food when Government is taxing sweet drinks to reduce the public’s sugar intake. Furthermore, if we must import sugar, the sugar industry should be the sole importer and benefit from it, not the merchants.
We must produce top-quality sugar, package and brand it and sell to niche markets at a profitable price. We’ve made some progress, with our packaged direct consumption sugar, sugar sachets, icing and granulated sugar now available locally and in the UK but there are other products from sugar cane which should be explored. Flavoured syrups and animal feed (silage) come to mind.
A good quality product at a competitive price begins in the field. Apart from the need for adequate rainfall, high yields can only be achieved if, among other things: proper cultivation is done under favourable weather conditions (strip tillage should be used in an effort to cut costs); farmers heed the recommendations of the Agronomic Research and Variety Testing Unit (ARVTU) when selecting varieties; Ratoon Stunting Disease is controlled by using clean planting material; The correct plant population is achieved; slow release fertiliser is used (using beneficial micro-organisms has also been shown to increase yield); there is timely weed control; and harvesting is done at the optimal stage of maturity, that is, grinding must begin in January/February.
While tourism is recognised as seasonal and hires labour accordingly, the sugar cane industry, also seasonal, is required to hire labour for a specified number of days per week year round which puts it at a disadvantage. In addition, payment of factory workers was changed some years ago from a per ton basis to an hourly basis – which doesn’t encourage high productivity. This must change.
Finally, kudos to the innovative individuals who have proposed growing King Grass to produce electricity. This pilot project is being conducted alongside sugar cane production to test its feasibility. Since King Grass has many similarities to sugar cane, it should be a suitable rotation crop for food crop producers.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org