3200733
Sheldon Mohammed

Over the years, farming has been considered unglamorous, backbreaking work with little financial reward. Farmers are known as hard-working people who labour to produce the food to feed this country so you can serve your favourite selected meals at your table.

Traditional agriculture is a dirty job, it is tiring, and it is time-consuming. But the farmers who love what they do can be seen going into their fields from early morning and toiling under the scorching sun. Others are forced to wake up as early as 3 am to make the trip to NAMDEVCO’s market in Macoya or to the Port-of-Spain market to get a space to sell their produce.

The Roadmap to Recovery document in 2020 acknowledged farmers and the agriculture sector’s plight, saying that it is viewed by the public as hard work and high risk.

The Roadmap document stated its intention to:

*Launch an Agriculture Stimulus Package geared towards the rapid expansion in production and marketing of selected high-demand agricultural commodities with short-term production.

*Increase public education campaigns (Buy Local and Eat Local Campaign) and food nutritional content information on local meals and produce to address the high incidence of non-communicable diseases.

*Build a technologically advanced agriculture system “to set the country on track to significantly increasing our food production and significantly reducing our net food import bill within the next two years.”

It stated that one of the major goals of the Government would be to reduce the $5.6 billion food import bill to $2 billion by 2022.

More than a year later, farmers across the country said that not enough steps have been taken by the Government to improve food production.

They also lamented that age-old problems like lack of access to markets for their produce, lack of financial aid and training have been impeding them from reaching full potential in production.

FARMERS’ STRUGGLES

Sheldon Mohammed

Sheldon Mohammed, a farmer based in Rio Claro, who plants kale and other leafy vegetables is of the view that the Government is not doing enough to help farmers increase production.

He said farming was a “hard job” and described a day in the life of a farmer.

“You spending your day bending your back in the hot sun. You wake up 5 am and work straight up to late evenings. Sometimes as late as 7 pm. When it raining, you working in the rain. After all this, when it is time to harvest and sell that it is even more difficult. You only get two to three hours of sleep and get up early to go there.

“You box out your ten boxes of tomatoes and you go off and sell. You reach Port-of-Spain market at 3 am then you go to Macoya market. Then 6 am it is back to the fields. If the produce isn’t sold today, you carry it back to sell tomorrow. Then the price fluctuates and sometimes you end up with nothing.”

Mohammed who is dejected because of past failures and hurdles in the agriculture sector recalled that two years ago he planted an acre of cabbage after investing $43,000 he had borrowed from the bank, but he ended up with nothing.

“From that venture, there were floods, lots of losses. I lost almost everything from that. Last year we planted sweet potatoes and other crops as well. I lost $13,000 in March with the kale I had planted. That’s because of the rain. It’s a delicate crop that tends to die off quickly with water. I went to the Ministry of Agriculture two years ago and I waited and never got assistance.”

If the Government is serious, he said, they should compensate farmers more when there are floods and subsidise tools and equipment.

He agrees with the Roadmap to Recovery document that agriculture is hard work and he asked the Government to do more to attract young people into this important sector.

“If the Government does not do something then soon there will be no one interested in getting into the field. Young people do not want to do this type of work again. You have to get up early and work hard all day. That’s why we need the Government’s help,” he said.

Annell Singh

Annell Singh, a farmer based in Sangre Grande, plants short crops like cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and celery.

He does hydroponics farming which he believes is the future of small-scale farming. In this type of farming the produce is grown under controlled conditions as the farmer feeds those plants what they want, to determine how it will grow and their size.

Despite the Roadmap document setting the goal of increasing food production, Singh said he has not seen anything for farmers to move to that goal.

“When you see the allocation for agriculture it is always the least amount in all ministries. The Ministry of Agriculture it seems is not putting enough effort out to develop the sector. Yet, T&T has so much potential to produce food.”

He also disagrees with the Roadmap document that citizens perceive agriculture as hard work with high risk. He said that there are a lot of young people who want to get into agriculture.

“I attended some courses with the Ministry of Agriculture recently and it’s not old people in those courses but young people, many in their 30s.”

He said one of the major challenges is to get their products out to market. It is one of their major challenges during the pandemic and even before.

“Recently I had a lot of crops, I had to give away and I made losses. This was chive. I wasn’t able to sell it so I gave it away because of a lack of customers.”

Joey Jagroop

Joey Jagroop, a farmer from Orange Grove Estate called on the Government to help farmers with more subsidies if they wish to attain their target of reducing the large food import bill. He plants sweet pepper, pumpkin, cabbage, and cucumbers among other crops.

He has no confidence in the Government’s proposal to reduce the food import bill and increase local food production.

“That is just something for the public to see to believe that they are assisting. I would say we are even in a worse situation than last year. They changed the subsidies and they have changed the process drastically to get these subsidies. So, if you are flooded you will get next to nothing. The Government is not even investing in the farmers to help them in any way.”

He said one of their main challenges was getting produce to the market as with the restrictions they do not have time to reach to the fields, carry the workers, then carry produce to the market.

So he sells to a middleman who then sells the produce in the markets.

The prices of chemicals and fertilisers have gone up and the only way to help farmers with this is to subsidise them, he suggested.

“If they are interested in raising food production, they should start with the subsiding of the cost of fertilisers to registered farmers.”

Agronomist speaks

Akanath Singh, an agronomist, works with farmers and home gardeners advising them how to get rid of pest and crop diseases.

He disagrees with the Roadmap position that agriculture is high risk and laborious.

Singh, who is from Tableland, said the pandemic was changing the culture of T&T as people who previously did not want to get into planting are now forced to as they have no jobs and other alternatives.

“Since last year the trend started and it has really shot up this year which are hundreds of people have reached out to me on social media requesting advice on how to plant crops. Many are first-time home gardeners.”

In 2020, the Minister of Agriculture gave a preview of initiatives proposed by the Government—the Homestead Programme.

It involves the distribution of parcels of lands to qualified recipients throughout the country for the construction of their homes and also to be used for agricultural purposes.

Singh said it was a good initiative but unfortunately, he has not heard anything about it since it was proposed in September 2020.

Speaking about the buy and eat local campaign proposed by The Roadmap, Singh said he has seen more people buying locally produced food, but it is not because of any government initiative. He attributes this to people having less money in their pockets so they cannot afford more expensive imported luxury items.

“We need people to stop focusing on handouts but teach people to plant their own food,” he added.

Agriculture economist speaks

Agriculture economist Omardath Maharaj said despite the Roadmap to Recovery document’s claim that people stereotype agriculture as hard work and high risk, economic problems created by the pandemic pushed people into home gardening and farming in general. He said at least half-million citizens saw the need to plant some sort of produce.

He said the country needs a serious rethink of development policy and planning in agriculture, a sector that has suffered from a history of underinvestment and failed policy.

He said in order to systematically reduce T&T’s reliance on foreign food products and bolster the country’s own capacity, there must be a fundamental shift in the sector’s priority, raising it on the national development agenda which is to be supported by an overarching national policy framework for sustainable agriculture and rural development.

While in the last budget presentation the Finance Minister outlined a series of policy and legislative positions advocated and taken by his government in relation to food and agriculture, Maharaj said they did not present any impact assessment of measures implemented to date

“The fact is that we remain hard-pressed to report an expansion in food production at a national level over the last five years much less for any permanent and strategic displacement of import dependency.”

He also said that “similar to the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on food items in previous years, the lowering of market prices for all of these now non-taxable inputs is left to be seen.” Hopefully, he said, “the tax relief will be passed on to farmers by way of their cost of production and asset acquisition, mechanisation, and technology adoption rather than create a wider profit margin for input suppliers especially now with COVID-19 disrupting global trade.”

He said a grant of $100,000 was subsequently announced, but to date, the transparency, participation, and effectiveness of the implementation of this facility are unknown after an initial $20 million allocation was made in 2017. After several years, the first successful applicant was awarded in June 2020.

He also advised the Government to utilise the limited spaces that the country has to grow food.

“The Government spent $3 million to upgrade the Chaguaramas Golf Course. I have never been fortunate enough to try the game but it could have purchased 120,000 breadfruit trees. At maturity, they would each produce an annual average of 100 fruits for the rest of our lives. If every HDC property, school, community centre, park and public space was delivered with one for starters, our food situation would be better off today.”