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close this bookThe Courier N° 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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An interview with Warwick FRANKLIN Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries

Diversifying agriculture: A major problem: “ unfamiliarity with new crops”

No other sector of the Barbadian economy has been the subject of so many studies and reports in recent years as agriculture. With the sugar industry still in the doldrums, diversification is more necessary than ever before. In this interview, Warwick Franklin, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries reviews the prospects.

· Minister, sugar has dominated agriculture in Barbados for a very long time. Its production continues to prove uneconomic. World prices have fallen and production in Barbados has also fallen. Isn’t there a case for phasing out its production?

- No, not at this time, and not in the foreseeable future. There is no case for phasing out the production of sugar in Barbados. My opinion is based on the following reasons: firstly, the present acreage occupied by sugar, which is within the vicinity of 30 000 acres, is quite a considerable size to take into consideration in Barbados agriculture; and to replace that with alternate crops, we have not yet found a solution, and I don’t see us finding one in the foreseeable future; secondly, from an environmental point of view, sugar is very important in that it keeps about 30 000 acres of land under cultivation. It keeps the countryside tidy (it is a very important thing for us in the tourism sector to have a tidy environment). So, that plays an important part. Another factor is that it is still a relatively big employer of labour. The statistics vary, but I would say that as many as 7 000 people are involved during the crop season. In the off-season, they would be reduced to maybe 1500 to 2 000, or thereabouts; Another factor we have to take into consideration is that the kind of soils we have in Barbados are very thin, and as a result, they are prone to erosion. And the sugar cane-crop has always been a good one from the erosion point of view: it is grass which keeps those soils firm. Further along the plus factors - because I am looking at that first before dealing with the negative factors - sugar cane is a crop that the farmers have been cultivating for many years, and in our diversification programme we have discovered that one of the difficulties is unfamiliarity with new crops. The whole idea of getting farmers to accept new technologies, for new crops, etc. and keep abreast is difficult. One of the most important plus factors is that sugar has the capacity to earn foreign exchange, since at the moment it’s the only crop with an assured market. The problem we have may be related to price, but we know that the market is assured, it is there. And one of sugar’s strong points, as a foreign exchange earner, is the percentage we retain (ie the foreign exchange earned minus the foreign exchange spent on inputs). This is higher than most of the other sectors: non-sugar agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. So, sugar will still be earning us about $ 60 million or $ 70 million per year.

These are the main points which any government has to take into consideration. We have made a deliberate policy that we would keep our sugar production level at a maximum of 90 000 tons, hoping to get these from the 30 000 acres currently under sugar cane cultivation. So, we have no plans in the immediate, or distant future and I would say, looking down the road in the next 15 or 20 years - of phasing out sugar production. I think any administration has to look at ways to minimise the losses.

· Diversification of agriculture has been a policy of the Government for a very long time. How successful have you been in this area?

- I would not use the term “ for a very long time”, because any time you are changing your agricultural pattern, changing the whole method of thought and work by people, it takes a long time. As an official policy of government, agricultural diversification, I would say, has been going for eight or nine years. (There is a contention that there has always been some diversification, but what we had was a crop-rotation system over sugar. I wouldn’t take that as a deliberate diversification policy. That was a natural consequence of having too much sugar). The diversification programme has been looked at and concentrated on, I would say, in the last seven to eight years. We have had successes. In other areas we have not been as successful as we had expected, and there are very many reasons for that which we will get around to later.

Now, what has been the diversification programme under the present Administration in the areas we are looking at? The first thing we started to look at, were the areas that earn foreign exchange. Foreign exchange is a critical component of the economy of this country. It is a necessity. The present situation is that our foreign exchange earnings from agriculture, apart from sugar, are restricted to some of the crops going out to London and Canada - i.e. some winter vegetables. They are not considerable. On the other hand, I have always viewed foreign exchange saving as an earning, because if we can produce certain crops to prevent us from having to bring them in, that, in my opinion, is a positive foreign exchange step. So our programme has been successful in terms of import substitution.

Let’s look at some of the sectors very quickly. Take food crops. In terms of root crops we continue to do reasonably well in yams and potatoes. In fact in the last couple of years, we have been exporting a fair amount. Indeed this year we even have difficulties disposing of potatoes. We have a bit in storage and we have not been able to find buyers. Not that there are no markets out there. There are. The difficulty is competition. The cost of transportation to the market place as well as the cost of production in Barbados, compared with those of other countries, mean that sometimes we get into the market place at a price that is not always competitive. And when some of the big producers come onto the market and saturate it, we have a problem. With yams, we have had difficulty in that our main yam crop, lisbon, has been plagued by disease. Our researchers are looking at other varieties, and as soon as we are satisfied that they are suitable, we will go back and step up production. There is a good export market for yams, better in my opinion than potatoes, but the market we are familiar with is that of lisbon and not having it meant we’ve had some difficulty satisfying the market.

The other crops are the routine ones of hot peppers, okras, some squash, pumpkins, in not too great quantities.

From the local market point of view we are self-suffcient in root crops, and we are very much self-sufficient in vegetables. Over the last couple of years our production of vegetables has gone up considerably. Our farmers are turning more and more to drip-irrigation and, as a result, there is no longer seasonality in vegetable production as we had before. The main vegetable crops are: carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce. Occasionally, we have some vegetables coming in from our CARICOM partners under the CARICOM treaty arrangement.

With regard to meat and our proteins, we are doing fairly well. We are still not self-sufficient in beef, we still bring in quite a bit, but our beef production has been going up. With the advent of the new abattoir, the feasibility study of which we have just completed, and as part of the diversification programme, we are encouraging livestock rearing. I believe, objectively, that over the next five to ten years, we might be able to reach about 40 or 50 % of our requirements. The same, I would say about lamb, the production of which is also increasing. We are self-sufficient in poultry. As a matter of fact last year we produced, I think nearly I million kilograms of poultry meat. And what you must know too (a fact that is not generally known), is that Barbadians are the biggest eaters of poultry in the world, about 100 lbs of poultry meat per person, per year, as against the Americans who come second with 67 lbs.

The other major crop we are looking at, as a foreign exchange earner, although there has been a little bit of controversy about it, is Sea Island Cotton. In the last couple of years, we have been trying to bring cotton back as one of our leading export crops. The reason for that is simply that, in cotton, we have a product of excellent quality known to be one of the best in the world. Now, this is purely from the diversification point of view, but whenever we assess agriculture in Barbados, we come up against the problem of our cost of labour which is relatively high. When you compare cost of labour with those of Latin America and maybe some of the African countries, our cost of labour is high. So, it means that whatever we do, we have to have crops that are of relatively higher value. We have had up until now a preferential market for our cotton lint in Japan, but we have to go beyond the lint stage because our farmers are already feeling a little reluctant to plant because of the low returns from raw cotton.

· Talking about farmers, you are having shortages of labour. What is the attitude of Bajans generally to agriculture?

- This is difficult. One of the big problems in Barbados’ agriculture is the ownership aspect of the land. Unlike some of the other West Indian countries, Barbados never had a lot of Crown lands. The Government does have some now, but they are as a result of acquisition. It is interesting to note that the first set of lands the Government acquired were as a direct result of the crisis in the sugar industry, going as far back as the ‘60s. There were large tracts of land available and the Government came in and acquired them. So those are the only lands that the Government has. The other lands are owned by private enterprises which were derived from the plantation system mostly. One of the facts you have to face as a planner in Barbados is that 90% of the land for agricultural purposes is still in the hands of about 5 % of the population. Statistics vary. We have from 10000 to 15 000 peasant farmers. But who is a peasant farmer in Barbados? People with half an acre of land, a quarter of an acre of land, mostly as a result of the same plantation system where for subsistence they were given small plots of land to cultivate? So we really don’t have at this moment in time, a farming community as such. We have more or less an owner-labour relationship community in agriculture. As a result of that and it being mainly sugar cane, a crop that is closely connected here with colonialism, slavery etc. it is not usually the first call of the young people. We have, though, seen some of the younger people, those who have been able to have access to land, trying to make something out of it.

· What is the level of mechanisation now?

- The level of mechanisation in the sugar industry is quite high. I think about 70% of the reaping, is being done mechanically this year. The stories coming out are conflicting, though. I have been told that the cost of reaping by the mechanical system is not as low as we were hoping. When compared with manual labour, there is not much gap. But it would have to continue that way, because the labour shortage is continuing.

Interview by A.O.