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. Isnt 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 dont 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 its
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
sugars 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
wouldnt 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.
Lets 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 weve 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
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
dont 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.