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Farmers: An endangered species

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The question was posed to me as a member of a panel addressing matters touching and concerning youth “Is agriculture a dying part of our culture?” I pretended I did not hear the question until it was more directly issued: “Mr. Caesar, you are from an agricultural family background, why then did you choose to study law and not agriculture?”

The picture is much bigger than myself, however, and extends to youth in general. Why is there a mass movement of labour out of agriculture? {{more}} Further, what impacts would such a shift in labour from the agricultural sector to other sectors have for our country in the medium and long term?

I had the opportunity to analyze the shifting trends in what may be considered twelve traditionally well known farming families in the Constituency of South Central Windward, a predominantly agricultural area. In each of the twelve families at least one parent is a farmer, the total number of children employed in various professions numbered thirty four, however only four of the children were farmers. What was more though is that a high percentage of the children have either migrated to North America or are currently employed on Cruise Liners as an alternative to farming. Those are the current trends, and when looked at critically it must arouse great concern.

The importance of a properly functioning agricultural sector in any economy must never be understated. Today the question appears no longer to rest only on issues of diversification, irrigation in the dry season or obtaining new markets overseas for our produce, but more importantly on whether we have lost the capacity to even convince persons to engage in farming.

What has led us to this stage?

Firstly, the general topography of our island is predominantly of rugged terrain which restricts large scale production and inhibits certain cost effective means of producing. This is compounded by the fact that there will always be limited land space for agricultural development on an island which is approximately 150 square miles. Further, with an expansion in housing and other forms of infrastructural development, what was once prime farm lands are quickly becoming residential communities. The result is that farmers are now being forced further inland and must bear the extra financial burden of transportation cost among other expenses.

Secondly, there has been no long term plan or strategy for the development of agriculture over the past twenty years which can be used as a guide for the future. The word “diversification” has lost merit to our farmers after being bandied about for years without bearing significant fruit.

Thirdly, the private sector investment in agricultural is less than satisfactory. The reality is that the private sector concentrates on the “greener pastures” which are located in other sectors. As sad as it might be, the Ministry of Agriculture may soon be doing it alone. One can anticipate a mammoth task ahead in this regard.

What is the next step?

We must accept that we have barely been receiving a passing grade. It is time for us to get our act together. Where are we really heading? Is it large scale livestock production or horticulture as viable income earners for possible export?

Our farmers must not lose hope although the agriculture sector is becoming less and less appealing to successive generations. When the average farmer is asked, “What are you planting?” the response is most times “I not fighting with this or that anymore … I am only planting x now.” That is an excellent way of assessing where we are at.

With continued trends it seems likely that by 2020 our import of agricultural goods would increase drastically. This will most certainly result in an increase in the prices we pay for such goods.

Today we should be looking at an expansion of production within the agricultural sector and not a contraction. A planned approach to expansion will result in sustained levels of net contribution to the growth of our national income and output, and a renewal of an entrepreneurial spirit within the agricultural sector.

Articles 56-62 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas establishing the Caribbean Community including the Caricom Single Market and Economy outlines the Community’s Agricultural Policy. It speaks to issues of fundamental transformation, production diversification, processing, rural enterprise development and many other nice sounding words. At the end of the day however it boils down to a farmer in Greggs or Vermont trying to make a livelihood, and the pursuit of our nation’s development through sound agricultural planning.

There are still many of us who foresee a great interest in the future of agriculture, whilst not in anyway failing to recognize the importance of other sectors such as tourism.

The way forward outlined by the government has given me a renewed confidence that we can still get it right. Though it may be one of our last chances to do so.

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