Final of a two-part Article.
Mr. Francis S Leonce
IT is opportune to review performance in agricultural diversification at this juncture. The first part of this article outlined the many diversification efforts carried out from early days. These encompassed a variety of crops and Livestock development schemes attempting various interventions to diversify agricultural production.
The diversification efforts were intensified by the transfer of Mr.Calixte George to CARDI. He later became Regional Director and further strengthened the role of CARDI in the diversification effort in the establishment of a Research and Demonstration station at Dennery Farm Co. where Mr. Ronnie Pilgrim continues to give committed service in introducing new varieties of crops and improving the post-harvest handling technologies of crops for the commercial markets.
The record of efforts in agricultural diversification should also note experiences in the private sector. In the 70’s, Dennery estates owned by Mr. Denis Barnard, carried out large scale exports of egg plants and a few garden crops to be marketed through Geest Foods Division in the UK. Later, Laurie Barnard, son of Denis, initiated and sustained for some time export of floral plants from his RiviereDoree holding to the Netherlands.
From the issues addressed to this point the question arises as to what is the way forward for agriculture. It is unlikely that St. Lucia or the Windward Islands can return to the income bounty of the 80’s and early 90’s from the export of bananas or any other commodity. The market protection which made this possible is no longer achievable because of the dictates of international trade. While crop diversification is a way forward and this has been required for a long time, commendable efforts to that end have so far not realized the required level of commercial development and prompted the substance of John Mr. Peters’ article. The exception to this of course is where egg production and pork, to a lesser extent, have made inroads in the supermarkets.
Reference to the factors hitherto associated with success of the banana industry, suggest that bananas is still the crop that can realise a majority of its historical attributes of success. Banana production and export should therefore remain foremost in the commercial agricultural development goals. Further to the factors favouring bananas potential, the Windward Islands are now owners of the marketing company in the UK and the associated shipping line. The task before us is to become more competitive with the banana product that we export, and fruit quality is the sine qua non of this effort. I am aware that Mr.BernardCornibert, Managing Director of Winfresh has presented proposals for the way forward in this respect. This calls for identifying and facilitating a core of growers who have the potential to achieve the competitive dictates. This can only provide a limited volume initially but there is enough banana expertise and experience in St. Lucia to achieve progressive increase in volume of the desired product, if we move to a new paradigm in our future course with commercial agriculture. The most important objective at this point is to maintain a foothold on the UK market and the shipping service. This is an invaluable asset to be secured not only for bananas but for any other agricultural commodity with export potential.
Mr. Peters’ article expressed concern about the paucity of supply of local fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets and the need to reduce our food import bill. I share his concern about that issue but the way forward in addressing this and agriculture diversification may be found in the application of some of the principal elements associated with the development of the banana industry. A significant factor is the production/marketing relationship with the marketer taking a proactive role in influencing the timing and quality of the supply delivered. This was fairly well in place in the banana industry from inception and underpinned the relations between Geest Industries and the banana growers/Winban.. Other key elements include the existence of a reliable structure to provide technical guidance to produce the required supply.
In the efforts at diversification, the delivery of these services is still deficient as there is no clearly defined responsibility for intervention with the farmers. CARDI and IICA are well equipped with expertise and information. But an effective delivery structure is not yet in place. There is, however, some indication of a promising start towards some of the directions stated above. This needs some impetus which can best be generated within the scope of a comprehensive and well publicized government policy to drive agricultural diversification.
I understand the concern that declining numbers of agricultural graduates (if that is in fact the case) may be related to the perceived declining trend in agriculture. I wish to emphasize that the quality and commitment of the graduates and not their numbers is the crucial ingredient here. Increase in numbers of skilled practitioners is indeed required but this need not be focused at the University degree level. The efforts to increase agricultural products on the local market and for export should be focused on the producer. Again the experience of the banana industry showed that when circumstances were conducive and rewarding for production, the farmer responded with supplies. Impetus to achieve this end is provided firstly by market demands, technological support and the creation of an environment which encourages the farmer to supply. Government policy is crucial to the provision of that environment.
Government policy to provide the desirable environment for supporting and encouraging farmers to respond to market requirements should encompass the following:
• Government should formulate and implement comprehensive plans to facilitate agricultural production first for local consumption and for export where this is applicable. This should involve providing Incentives not necessarily through spending but more generally through facilitation. The policy items need not be broad based but may be defined to target specific crop(s) or agricultural endeavour.eg bananas enjoyed a number of specific incentives and so does poultry production. The impact should always be measurable in commercial terms as economic progress is the key objective. To that end statistical monitoring is a key component of the administration of the policy.
• The government plans for land banks for potential young farmers should be an important component of this policy . It is crucial, however, that candidates have some credentials or veritable interest in farming as a business pursuit. The selection of candidates should not be based on need but on the potential for productive use of the land. The experience with St. Lucia Model Farms is pertinent in this regard. The scheme ended with a mixed record as it was the poor (and virtually non- farmers) who drew populist support against the administration of the scheme, while the successful farmers received little public notice (except when one of these purchased a Mercedes Benz vehicle helped by his windfall income). Facilitation of this group of “entrepreneurs” should include adequate scope for training, the application of technology and the keeping of business accounts. The land bank scheme should be managed as a business project and not as an another administrative endeavour of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands.
• Technology support and marketing connections should be considered key elements of the land bank ventures.
• Government policy should encourage private sector participation in any venture with a commercial objective. The Ministry of Agriculture should deal with administration of the policy in delivery, facilitation, regulating and monitoring but all with a commercial sensitivity.
• The comprehensive policy should have as an objective sensitizing the society at large to appreciate the importance of agriculture and to view it as a respectable and potentially rewarding pursuit. It should be recognized to require technical or management skills.
Effectively, there should be a crusade-like promotion of agriculture which could begin with the schools. That does not mean advocating for widespread adoption of school gardens, although where feasible this could be encouraged. Agriculture promotion should encompass the whole society by including measures to encourage and support home gardening as a leisure endeavour.
Achieving adequacy of local foodstuff on the supermarket shelves requires a policy framework that encourages interaction among all relevant sectors: tourism, education, infrastructure, health and commerce to encourage and facilitate the farmer to produce. Oversight in the administration of this all embracing policy should be at the level of the Prime Minister. It should be recalled that this was what effectively applied with bananas under Mr. John Compton’s administration. The Ministry of Agriculture should be proactive as facilitators in areas of research, identification of appropriate seeding and planting materials , demonstrating more effective systems of production, coordination of the inputs of other agricultural agencies, monitoring farmers activities to provide advice where needed, maintain statistical records and administering regulatory measures as required. The farmer should manage his production responsibilities as part and parcel of his role as a business entrepreneur. As such, he should be responsible for his marketing arrangements, identify his needs and seek the required solution as any other business person does. He should, however, be aware of the services obtainable from the Ministry of Agriculture and agencies of support such as CARDI, or private sector service providers which may exist or through use of the internet.
The overall objective of the model outlined above is to promote the business opportunities of agriculture and also to promote it as a leisure activity for home supplies. Government policy should be drawn out to effectively stimulate and facilitate the production of agricultural produce not only for market, but also for home consumption of products grown right there in our backyards. This would to a large measure improve our overall nutrition and our general health.
The society should not expect the Ministry of Agriculture to be the implementer of commercial agricultural projects any more than they expect the Ministry of Tourism to construct hotels. The plans for Government operating an abattoir, presents many questions given the historical experience in this regard. The society should be more concerned about the availability of agricultural entrepreneurs rather than emphasis on agricultural graduates per se. Numbers of the latter are unlikely to spike again in the short term given the reality of existing social and economic trends and the degraded agricultural climate discussed in this article. However there is growing business interest in all areas and agriculture can be made to fit into this opportunity for entrepreneurs who may or may not have graduated from Agricultural academic institutions. Persons with basic management skills can obtain the required technical training and some can possess sufficient savvy to know where and how to seek required technological assistance to be very successful in conduct of agri-business, be it in production or commercial areas. An instance of my acquaintance in this regard is dealt with below.
I wish to refer to Mr. Dunstan Demille, Produce Operational Manager of CFL. He has ostensibly been very effective in driving the produce business of CFL. More relevantly, for the purposes of this article, is his considerable impact in influencing the generating of supplies through his direct farm intervention. Mr.Demille obtained Post Harvest training through contacts with well acclaimed persons and institutions. This allows him to be proactive and helpful in the contractual relationships with the producer clients of his company. A similar model was initiated by the Sandals group when they hired Mr. ‘Chinese’ Vitalis (now ALBA Ambassador) as coordinator of Farmer Hotel relations to help synchronize the production and delivery of supply of fruit and vegetables used by the hotel .This is a classic example of how the Agriculture- Tourism linkage can be made effectively, for the purpose of encouraging the development of local agricultural business. A key item in my Terms of Reference upon taking up my appointment as Technical Director with Geest Industries ( W I) LTD in 1979 was that I should assist the Associations/ Winban in meeting their needs and standards for the market.The proposed Government Policy to drive Agriculture development should take these business models into account.
The beginning of this article dealt with the factors which inspired some students and early graduates of St. Mary’s College to pursue careers in agriculture. The world has changed much since then and new challenges to agriculture have emerged in social and economic spheres. These however are leading to new kinds of employment opportunities to meet production and other commercial objectives in agriculture. Agriculture can no longer be seen by Government to be mainly a national social safety net. “Profitability” should be the “Buzz” word and naturally, not all practitioners will be successful in this endeavor. Entrepreneurs are required to be competent and effective, not only in direct field production but in the many services associated with successful agriculture from field to market.
A new generation of potential agriculturist may be inspired to the field as private operators with greater flexibility to deliver their skills. Government Policy would surely provide the required impetus for educating and training towards creating agricultural entrepreneurs and to promote the role of agriculture in maintaining a healthy nation. Brilliant minds need not only serve as Agricultural Government Technocrats. They can also be quite creative and successful in the wonderful world of agricultural production and marketing especially with some Government support regarding physical and material inputs.