Apart from those involved in Plant Grow Eat which sells locally produced vegetables and invests in small farmers’ produce (most popularly known for their Simply Mushrooms), not many young persons have been enthusiastic about farming and agriculture as an investment choice. And apparently neither do experienced farmers encourage them to be, despite the tremendous opportunity that lies within the sector.
In an article published by The World Bank in 2014 it was stated, “Agriculture is up to four times more effective than other sectors in reducing poverty. Increasingly, the world is counting on agriculture to produce more nutritious food for — and improve the livelihoods of — a booming population, especially the poor.” So why is there hesitation to work in agriculture here in Saint Lucia?
Well, farmers have been fighting a murky battle for survival long before fresh vegetables and cuts of meat have made it to the dining room table.
It wasn’t too long ago — October 2016 — when Tropical Storm Matthew brought winds and rain sufficient to flatten many banana plantations. In the years preceding, a number of named storms and other weather systems had jeopardized the livelihoods of farmers island-wide. By August 2017, Minister for Agriculture, Ezechiel Joseph reported a predicted increase in banana production and export. A press release noted, “The island could see the production of almost 20,000 tonnes for 2017, which could be an over 300 per cent increase compared to 2016 figures.”
A few weeks later, however, some banana farmers reported that Hurricane Maria’s feeder bands further crippled their production rate.
There is no way to protect plants from nature’s fury, which is the largest risk for crop farming. The only thing that the government can do is to help get farmers back on their feet afterwards, by providing fertilizer and oils. However, on the sunny days, with sufficient rain showers for crops to flourish, farmers complain that the government does not provide the necessary support to develop the industry.
For the purpose of this article, The STAR spoke with a banana and livestock farmer who plants, grows, rears and harvests in the Roseau Valley. His first comment about the status of the agricultural industry was, “It’s dead. Agriculture used to be lively and vibrant, it’s what made this country, but it’s dead. It’s because the government doesn’t want to help us farmers.”
According to this farmer, the only help from the Ministry of Agriculture is fertilizers provided at a lower rate than other sources and the ploughing of main drains near farms. Even then, he lamented that he had only recently heard of drains being dug in Dennery and was yet to see it manifest in Roseau.
Leaf Spot or Yellow Sigatoka is a fungal plant disease that affects the appearance of trees and fruits. According to this Roseau farmer, stagnant water harbours this plant disease and the National Fairtrade Organization (NFTO) suspends farmers if Yellow Sigatoka is identified on their farm. Hence the need for proper drainage.
He also claimed that Yellow Sigatoka can be avoided by spraying bananas with certain oils alternately. However, the NFTO has been “giving the same oils cycle after cycle” knowing that farmers will be suspended. He highlighted that banana-ripening bags (locally known as diaphin) are supposed to be provided by NFTO but it has been suffering numerous shortages. “They’re not providing the resources we need,” this farmer said.
“Enough food can be produced on-island for the population but we’re spending too much money importing food.” He continued: “The vendors in Castries Market make it difficult for locals because they are too expensive.” However, he noted that the prices could be somewhat justified because of the cost of farming and the lack of support from government. Then he emphasized that excessive money is leaving the country to order meat to sell locally. He suggested that livestock, instead, should be imported so that locals can breed and rear animals. Presently the demand is high and farmers rearing cattle, especially, have to sell them at exorbitant rates. “All those abandoned farms are overgrown, and locals are always asking for a little cow, a little sheep, but there is hardly anyone to sell to them,” he said. “People are willing to grow animals right here but there is a shortage.”
This farmer further claimed that Massy Stores buys beef at EC$8 per pound as opposed to the local market’s $10. Farmers find themselves having to either sell their animals alive at a fetching, slightly profitable price for locals, or a less profitable one to the supermarkets which needs food for the public. “It just makes the work hard,” he regretted, “and it’s so important for the country.”