The Glory Days of Agriculture-Pt. 1

francisI was prompted to write this article in response to some issues touched upon in an article entitled “Can The Glory Days Return” by John Peters published in the Weekend VOICE of 31st May, 2015.

Mr. Peters’ article made reference to the “Glory Days” of agriculture. This most likely was referring to the period of the 80’s and early 90’s when production and export of bananas peaked with resulting high incomes to farmers and a major beneficial impact on the St. Lucian economy . It is useful to understand the factors associated with this economic boom. To do this it is also useful to review the history of the industry and the associated course of developments and related events.

We begin with Mr. Peter’s reference to a number of St. Mary’s alumni who contributed to agriculture in the past. The environment of the 50- 60’s was conducive to attracting high performing students to pursue agricultural science and related biological fields for professional careers due to the following circumstances: St. Lucia was then largely an agricultural society; The introduction of general science in the curriculum of St. Mary’s College by Brother Canice Collins of the Presentation brothers, who, as mentioned by Mr. Calixte George, in his impressive tribute to St. Mary’s at the recent 125th. anniversary celebration, pointedly encouraged smart and brilliant students to consider Agricultural Science as a profession; at that time a number of expatriates were engaged in St. Lucia through the Colonial Service as government officials providing agricultural services . Many of these were from Jamaica but a few originated from other Islands. The Jamaicans included Harry Atkinson, Victor Stewart, Stanley Mullings, Ronald (Speedy) Miller, Sammy Gage. St. Lucia became home to most of them and their immediate progenies have made their mark in other professional fields in St. Lucia. Also well known from that period was Swithin Schouten, from Anguilla and who was head of the Agriculture Department. The return to the Island of two also well known St. Lucians and graduates of Canadian Universities , Charles Cadet who studied Agriculture at McGill University and Dr. Graham Louisy who graduated in Veterinary medicine from Guelph, provided additional incentives to pursue agriculture and Veterinary medicine as these two gentlemen were supportive of the students interested in following in their footsteps. These included Cyril Matthew, Dr. Edsel Edmunds, Calixte George and myself (Francis Leonce).

Cadet and Dr. Louisy had a profound impact on agriculture developments through the late 50’s to the early 70’s. As Assistant to Mr. Schouten, `Cadet was responsible for research and development work covering economic crops in plant propagation; field trials on cocoa, citrus, coconuts, pineapple, rice etc and on bananas as that industry was in its early phase of development. In the mid 60’s as Research Officer, I carried out extensive Irish potato varietal trials at a number of ecologically favourable locations in St. Lucia. The results were impressive and the Ministry at one stage supplied total potato requirements of the Island for one month.

Concurrently, Dr. Louisy was establishing animal health service all over St. Lucia. He subsequently implemented a Livestock Development Project at Beausejour, Vieux Fort. He was ably assisted in this venture by a project Manager, Mr. Clem Hennecart , another graduate of Guelph.

The expatriate officers referred to earlier provided invaluable service in the conduct of the many agricultural projects started under the Schouten administration. Cocoa propagation was carried out at a high level of technology, involving many clones of that crop, at Union Agricultural station. The Manager of the programme was Mr. Dolly Williams, a Vincentian. He was thereafter known as ‘Cocoa” Williams and very recently passed away as a resident of New York. The centre of this propagation at Union is still known as ‘Cocoa Centre’ but now is largely used for floral plant propagation.

Up to the early 70’s a mechanical engineering division managed by an expatriate from Barbados, Mr. Prout, formed part of the Department of Agriculture. All feeder roads, extensive field plowing, land clearing and drainage work for any rural development was carried out by that division. It was effectively the vanguard operational unit of the Department of Agriculture in the expansion of banana cultivation.

Winban Research was established in the late 60’s with the commissioning of a new laboratory provided by Geest Industries and headed by Mr. Ian Twyford, an Englishman originally attached to the Regional Research Centre (RRC) at St. Augustin, Trinidad. It is of historical importance to note that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second formally opened that laboratory during her visit to St. Lucia with Prince Phillip in 1966. Initially the laboratory was established for the conduct of soil and leaf analysis for bananas to ensure proper nutrition for the given soil conditions. The laboratory Chemist was Mr. John Messing, originally from Poland. A nematology laboratory was added when Dr. Edmunds joined shortly after from UWI , Trinidad. Subsequently the laboratory was expanded to include a Fruit Quality Research and Development unit, initially administered under Tropical Products Institute (TPI) with British Government aid. I subsequently took charge as Fruit Quality Technologist. Field trials on bananas were transferred from Union to Roseau on lands provided by Geest Estates ltd. Later, Dr. Edsel Edmunds replaced Mr. Twyford as Director of Winban Research. Mr. Chong Perryman was already the first managing Director of Winban.

Winban R&D obtained international recognition for its work on bananas and arising from this, Dr.Edsel Edmunds, Mr.John Messing and myself were engaged in a number of regional and international consultative developments in bananas in our areas of specialty. The technological services provided to banana farmers in the Windward Islands by Winban R&D were well known. It is opportune to make reference to the activities of Winban R&D in monitoring leafspot control. The fundamental aim then was to increase the efficiency and lowering the cost of spraying and protection from infection by the Black Sigatoka strain of leafspot disease. The subsequent degrading and eventual demise of Winban R & D was clearly a major contributory factor which led to the current crisis with Black Sigatoka in St Lucia.

The banana industry was initiated basically through the interests of external forces. This was primarily the UK Government, which needed a non-dollar supply source for bananas as it was affected by post war trading circumstances. The role of the Trade Commissioner for the Caribbean in the person of St. Lucian, Sir Garnet Gordon was important to the subsequent banana trading developments with the Windward Islands. An agriculture distribution company operating in the UK, Geest Industries ltd , under Owner/ Chairman, Mr. John Van Geest , came in at that time and offered an exclusive contract to buy bananas from the Islands’ Producers. A subsidiary company, Geest Industries (W.I.) ltd, was set up in the Windward Islands to oversee operations related to the buying and shipping of the bananas within the framework of the contract. The latter company later bought out the sugar producing estate of Cul de Sac and Roseau which were subsequently converted to banana production. Sir Garnet Gordon was the first Chairman of Geest Industries (WI) Ltd. and later succeeded by Mr. John Hailwood.

For several years much of the exported production volume emanated from large estates and midsized farms but smaller growers were also involved from early. All growers were members of the St. Lucia Banana Growers Association (SLBGA), of which Mr. Harry Atkinson was Chairman for a large part of it’s history. Initially, the large and midsized producers operated their own bunch wrapping sheds for subsequent delivery of fruit to the wharf for shipping. Smaller farms delivered to various Association operated buying and bunch wrapping sheds from which the fruit was trucked to the wharf. From the early 1970’s bananas were boxed for export and no longer shipped as wrapped bunches. The larger estates had the resources to build and operate their own boxing plants but the small growers had to deliver their bunches to Association operated boxing plants where fruit was de-handed, bought then boxed. The number of small farms increased progressively through the years and many large estates were partitioning and selling lands because of economic, social and industrial factors. Populist sentiments and Government Policy had been supportive of this course of Land reform. The construction of feeder roads facilitated the small farm expansion trend. The delivery and buying of fruit from the numerous small growers at the central boxing plants necessitated considerable handling of fruit with consequential damage and negative impact on fruit quality.

In order to address the fruit quality problems associated with the conventional boxing plants, Winban and Geest partnered to conduct small scale and low profile trials to explore the feasibility of packing fruit in the field for direct delivery to the wharf for shipment. Effectively this allowed individual farmers to pack their own fruit for direct export. The early controlled phase of this development provided promising results on the market place.

Following the banana and agricultural ravages inflicted by Hurricane Allen, there was pressure to expand this new system in the banana production recovery efforts. The escalated partitioning of large estates taken together with the attractiveness of the field packing system to small farmers led to rapid increase in banana volumes. This unfortunately resulted in an indiscriminate expansion of small banana farms into areas not well suited to produce the quality needed for export. This increase in production was additionally favoured by concurrent high prices on the market caused by unrelated events. Together these led to the bounty income from bananas which was the peak of the ‘glory days’ in the agricultural sector. This volume and the associated income emanated predominantly from small farmer production. The down side of this development was that Quality control was largely at the discretion of hordes of small farmers and standards varied widely. The truth of the matter is that the Windward’s banana export industry became too indiscriminating and it was a myth that we had developed a model banana industry based largely on small farm production. The loss of market protection which came about shortly afterwards through international trade developments meant that much of this fruit was not competitive on the UK or international market place. Most small farmers simply did not have the resources required to apply the technological and managerial measures required for an increasingly competitive market.

In summary the factors associated with the historical success of the Banana industry were as follows:

• There was a protected market in the UK.
• Government exercised a policy of facilitating that industry.
• The industry operated under an exclusive marketing contract which also covered shipping.
• An administrative and coordination structure was in place very early through the Banana Growers Association.
• The Windward Islands Banana Associations acted as one body in dealing with marketing and shipping issues through the formation of Windward Islands Banana Association (Winban).
• Winban also provided the required technology by operating its own Research organization and the monitoring of disease control.
• The industry was served by committed Managers and Technocrats in the Association, Winban and Geest Industries.
• Input supplies were available on a timely basis from The Banana Growers Association/ Winban , some committed private input suppliers such as Renwick &Co., Stanthur and Agricultural Association.
• Bananas were adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions provided that water supply was adequate.
• Bananas were relatively hardy and resilient to adverse climatic elements such as Hurricane.
• Through the 42 years of a contractual marketing relationship, Geest Industries demonstrated great commitment to the sustainability and success of the industry in several significant ways outside the responsibilities of a contract. This was due to Messers John Van Geest and John Hailwood( Former Chairman, Geest WI} who were wholeheartedly devoted to improving the welfare of the people of the Windward Islands
• The roles of our indigenous Financial institutions. The St.Lucia Development Bank (the original SLDB) and National Commercial Bank (NCB) were invaluable to the Banana industry’s recovery following complete decimation by Hurricane Allen. The Banana industry’s original Bankers (remain nameless) no longer had interest in what they deemed to be a collapsing industry. Mr. George Theophilus (Chairman of both Banks at that time) and Mr. MacDonald Dixon

(Managing Director,NCB) showed no hesitation in leading these institutions to take over the financing of the industry. At that same time Mr. Francis Carasco (Chairman Coop. Bank) took the risk of financing the bold experiment of St. Lucia Model Farms.
This article will continue next week with “THE WAY FORWARD IN AGRICULTURE”

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