Rice farmers say their industry is teetering on the brink of collapse.

In 1995, T&T had approximately 6,000 farmers producing 30 per cent of the country’s rice supply and also exported some of this production. During that period the country’s total paddy production was 21,200 metric tonnes. Today that number has dwindled to approximately 12 farmers producing around one per cent of the country’s demand. Some have abandoned the industry while others have been forced to diversify into short-term crop production.

A few factors have signalled the death knell for the rice industry such as late payments for farmers from National Flour Mills (NFM), resulting in the inability to pay their loans from the Agricultural Development Bank of T&T (ADB), the Ministry of Agriculture terminating several initiatives such as Research and Development into increasing rice production, the $1 million Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) for rice development and a rice seedling unit at El Carmen.

More than 25 farmers have since gone bankrupt in the Plum Mitan and Caroni areas because of the late payments.

Speaking to Sunday Guardian in Warrenville, one of the rice farmers said that politics must be taken out of food production. The farmers said rice policies that were implemented under the People’s Partnership administration were scrapped, and the ministry had “betrayed” them after they were encouraged to invest in the agriculture sector and had borrowed a significant amount of money from the ADB.

One farmer said, “There was a National Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 designed to reduce the food import bill, increase the country’s food security and for partial self-sufficiency.”

Six staples were selected to be developed under the food security project; rice, dasheen, cassava, eddoes, sweet potatoes and breadfruit.

“Champions and team leaders of teams were selected for each commodity, agronomist Nigel Grimes and agricultural assistant Kelly Doodnath were selected as leader and champion respectively for rice,” the farmer said.

“They were asked by the ministry to increase the acreage under cultivation and the number of farmers cultivating rice.”

The Government spent approximately $5 million to assist new rice farmers to enter production with land preparation and seed material. Many farmers who left rice cultivation were encouraged to return.

The farmer said over 1,000 acres of land were earmarked for rice cultivation throughout the country in areas such as Penal, Navet, Plum Mitan, Biche, Barrackpore and Centeno.

Since the rice industry in T&T was heavily mechanised, some of the farmers borrowed over $1.5 million to $2 million for harvesters and other equipment and this was how they ended up in this predicament today.

Now five to six young farmers are unable to repay their loans and lines of credit have been terminated, plus their credit ratings have fallen and family life is in shambles.

The farmers are calling on Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to intervene in the matter, as he had an agronomist, Dr John Alleyne as his adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister.

The farmers also called on the people of the country to join in solidarity with them.

In an interview with Ira Mathur in Guardian Media’s September 7, 2020 edition, Prime Minister Dr Rowley said there was a shortage of farmers in the country and there was a lot of fertile unfarmed agricultural land.

He said in the Government’s five-year Road Map to Recovery, they planned to invest heavily in agricultural expansion with incentives for new farmers.

Outstanding payments from NFM

Former Caribbean Rice Association of T&T (CRATT) chairman Eniat Hosein said NFM had outstanding payments to him as well as other farmers since October 2020, and this has been an ongoing problem.

He said this prevented him from reinvesting in his crop, repaying his loans and led to him incurring interest at ADB.

Hosein said in 2010 when the previous government introduced a policy to increase rice production in T&T in areas like Ecclesville, Penal, Barrackpore, Navet, Plum Mitan, Caroni and Felicity, he was among several farmers including Richard Singh who invested in harvesters to reap their crops and to help out smaller farmers.

He said everything was working well until they began receiving late payments from NFM in 2014.

Hosein said the younger farmers were the first to become disenchanted and dropped out, but the farmers who invested large sums of money, time and energy persisted in the industry because they have no other choice though they felt “betrayed by the Ministry of Agriculture.”

He said despite protest actions, JSC meetings, and the Government being appraised of the farmers’ situation, including not being compensated for their crop losses in the floods of 2018, they were still in debt.

Hosein said the only way for them to survive was through diversification because they realised rice was not a priority for the Government. However, he warned other vegetable and food crop farmers will be affected as well because of the large-scale competition currently taking place with corn and sweet potato.

Farmer: Why is Rambharat only promoting one section of the rice industry?

Former president of the National Rice Growers Co-operative Society Ltd (NRG) Fazal Akaloo asked why Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat was biased in promoting only one section of the rice industry, Moruga Hill rice in particular while abandoning Caroni rice farmers.

He said Central rice farmers could produce rice for the country at a low cost of $3-$4 per pound in contrast to Moruga Hill rice which cost $50 a pound.

Sunday Guardian contacted Rambharat to ask why rice production had fallen to such a low level under his tenure and what plans the Government had for the future of the rice industry and food security.

Rambharat said via WhatsApp, “I articulated all the issues regarding local rice when I appeared before the Joint Select Committee which examined the NFM and the Rice Industry. The approach to rice remains exactly as I said then.”

Rambharat had said at the JSC in 2019 that rice production had dropped from 21,700 metric tonnes in 1992 to 1,893 tonnes in 2015 due to the closure of Caroni 1975 Ltd.

He said T&T produced 3,000 tonnes of paddy, while it imported 36,000 tonnes of parboiled rice.

“We can safely move rice production to 5,000 metric tonnes a year. If we are to increase production it comes at a cost to the taxpayer,” he had said.

He said to produce 10,000 tonnes, the farmers would need an additional 5,800 acres of lands.

He had asked if taxpayers were prepared to pay $112 million for 10,000 tonnes of rice and if the Parliament was prepared to allocate that money? He said $112 million did not include the cost for lands, fertilisers, grains, inputs and water.

Rambharat said he was shocked that NFM had admitted in its first hearing that 95 per cent of the rice they bought from farmers were used in dog food. He admitted that the model adopted by NFM to buy rice was not effective, stating that they needed a mill, as a proposal was under consideration.

He indicated that people had acquired a taste for parboiled rice and that a parboiling plant was needed in T&T. He urged the farmers to come together and operate as a business.

He admitted that the rice industry was being jeopardised by a cartel.

“A cartel of politicians for sure,” Rambharat added, stating that former agriculture ministers under the PP government were the ones responsible.

Rambharat denied that the Government was moving to discontinue rice production and depend solely on imports. Rambharat said then that his ministry had a plan to transform the sector and boost production. Rice farmers said they are still waiting.

What the former administration did

When former agriculture minister Vasant Bharath was contacted for comment, he said during his tenure new incentives for rice harvesting equipment, a rice seedling facility at El Carmen, 100-acre plots were given out for rice production, payment to farmers within 30 days of delivery of paddy and the National Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 were implemented.

Former agriculture minister Devant Maharaj said he did a lot to revive the rice industry under his watch, including ensuring that rice farmers were paid in time by NFM, a Rice Development and Coordinating Committee put in place, and he increased lands under rice production from 500 acres to 4,750 acres in 2013.

Agricultural Consultant Nigel Grimes, former programme coordinator/adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture under four past ministers and two administrations said implementation of the rice strategic plan started under the last administration.

He said initiatives such as a rice coordinating unit at El Carmen Agricultural Station, preparation of lands at El Carmen for growing and selecting new varieties of rice adapted for local growing conditions via collaborations with FLAR Colombia and UTT, the commencement of the process in the privatisation of rice milling, ADB special facilitation to rice farmers for the purchase of combine harvesters, technical cooperation assistance from the Government of India which had all aspects of the rice strategic plan were stopped since November 2015.