Farmer Dilip Chanka Chanka surveys his tomato crop that he has left to rot because the prices have plummeted precipitously.

The Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) is calling on the Ministry of Agriculture to step in and save farmers from leaving their crops to rot because of a precipitous drop in prices for local produce.

When Guardian Media visited vegetable farmer Dilip Chanka’s garden in Maloney on Wednesday we were met with an entire field of tomatoes unpicked and withering away.

“This whole field condemned,” Chanka said waving a dismissive arm towards the land. “We plant this in November, it’s now March, so that’s 5 months of work for free.”

Right now, a pound of imported tomatoes is being sold at 17 dollars at some retail outlets. However, a pound of locally produced tomatoes is being sold for around 4 dollars. In some cases, at a wholesale level that price could be as low as 1 dollar.

At those prices, Chanka said it’s best to leave the tomatoes alone.

“You cannot afford to pick to market, when you have to sort and box and then go to market, it not making any sense.”

But Chanka who has been in this business for the past 38 years, said he is still losing thousands of dollars after his investment.

“It is very discouraging, and then they’re constantly raising the cost of chemicals because they say it has a FOREX shortage, but that is the problem right there, they’re using the foreign exchange to buy things we are growing here, they spending it in the wrong place.”

It’s a problem that has the attention of the ASTT.

“Our farmers don’t have any way of being told what to plant and when to plant, meaning that most of the farmers are producing the same commodity at the same time.”

ASTT President Daryl Rampersad said farmers are forced to drop their prices on certain crops such as tomatoes, cabbages and sweet peppers because unlike their imported counterparts, those locally grown produce do not have a contracted market to sell it to.

“Right now, cabbage is being sold at 2 dollars a pound and imported cabbage is being sold at 15 dollars, we are still sharing our items with the foreign market. You see the foreign produce has a fixed market such as the groceries and therefore they can have a fixed price.”

The ASTT President said local poultry farmers have that system and it works well for them.

In addition to calling for a proper procurement division to allocate fixed markets for locally grown produce, it wants the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (NAMDEVCO) to collect data in order to create a crop forecasting system for farmers. This Rampersad said will ensure that farmers know what to plant and when.

Guardian Media contacted Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat who said this year’s agriculture production has been higher than usual due to unseasonal rain so that’s why prices are lower than years gone by.

He said markets for local produce are being started with the veggie box programme by NAMDEVCO for the Ministry of Social Development and with Subway which he believes will absorb some of the excess supply.

Rambharat added that NAMDEVCO is also working to get more farmers onto its database so it can advise on market forecasting and production planning.