This is the 2nd in a series of interviews with Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Rural Transformation, the Hon. Saboto Caesar. Agriculture Face-To-Face is geared to highlighting challenges and identifying the solutions to those challenges faced by all stakeholders in the vitally important Agriculture sector. This edition of Agriculture Face-To-Face aims to explore some of the emerging opportunities in the root crop sector.
Before we go directly into my exchange with Hon. Caesar, let me express my profound gratitude to everyone who shared their reviews and comments, whether positive or negative, privately, via Facebook or otherwise, on the first edition of Agriculture Face-To-Face.
Sean Rose: Thank you once again, Minister Caesar, for taking time out to complete this 2nd edition of Face-To-Face. I can see that you have been very busy at home and travelling around the region and internationally with visits to Taiwan and the US, for instance. I have had the distinct privilege of joining you at one of your long list of official meetings during the Miami leg of your recent visits. In fact, Miami is a convenient point of departure to begin this interview. There is a demand from Miami for four 40ft containers of dasheen from St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) each week, or 16 40ft container loads of dasheen every month. This suggests to me that Vincentian farmers would now be asked to plant more dasheen to meet the demand. How is that process going?
Hon. Saboto Caesar: SVG was able to export under the new Agri-Export initiative, six 40ft containers of dasheen and other root crops since January 2017, to Miami and Trinidad and Tobago. A month ago we cited an imminent shortage. In light of that, a delegation comprising Jai Rampersaud, Norman Pemberton and myself as Agriculture Minister visited Dominica. We met with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skeritt, Agriculture Minister Johnson Drigo and Trade Minister Ian Douglas, along with exporters of root crops in Dominica. The meeting concluded with a commitment from Dominica to alternate weekly shipments with SVG dasheen to Miami. Dominica has since concluded their first shipment.
We met with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skeritt, Agriculture Minister Johnson Drigo and Trade Minister Ian Douglas, along with exporters of root crops in Dominica. The meeting concluded with a commitment from Dominica to alternate weekly shipments with SVG dasheen to Miami. Dominica has since concluded their first shipment.
In the meantime, SVG is preparing to export another container load of dasheen this week. The overall intention is for SVG, Dominica, Grenada and St. Lucia to establish a joint production and export platform, similar to that which existed during the period of Windward Islands banana exports to the United Kingdom. SVG three weeks ago extended support for the training of two Grenadian nationals in expansive dasheen production.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has an existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Grenada, for agriculture assistance exchange. This allows for a seamless exchange of technical expertise between our two countries. Grenada has also assisted us with planting material for spices and we have assisted them with banana and root crop planting material. Spices such as clove, bay leaf and nutmeg have been distributed to farmers throughout St. Vincent. There is no place for selfishness if the aim is true OECS integration. I am satisfied that with the collaboration of Dominica and the potential assistance of Grenada and St. Lucia we will be able to satisfy the demand for dasheen and other root crops in the North American, European and Caribbean markets.
Sean Rose: But some Nationals have expressed concerns via Social Media saying, for example, that some 10,000 acres of arable lands are out of production and that the agricultural sector is not meeting local demand. What is your take on those concerns?
Hon. Saboto Caesar: Successive governments have explored opportunities for diversification with, and around bananas, as far back as Sir James Mitchell in 1992, in light of pending preferential erosion on the United Kingdom market. It is important to note that as far back as 1992, the future of agriculture was destined away from banana mono-cropping. By 2001 when the Unity Labour Party (ULP) took office, and at no fault of the NDP, more than half of the banana farmers who had cultivation in 1992 had already left the industry by 2001. The root cause being, reduction in preferential treatment for Windward Islands bananas on the U.K. market. The lands that we see not cultivated today, but were hitherto cultivated with bananas, began moving out of production since the mid-1990s.
The consequential accumulation of large tracts of lands not being cultivated is not an overnight phenomenon. What is interesting to note, however, is that the value of the production of root crops rivals the pinnacle days of banana production. This has been proven in data captured in a graph compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture (see graph attached) for everyone to examine.
In a future Agriculture Face-To-Face, we should do a comparative analysis of the prices received by farmers for a pound of bananas from 1992 to 2005 with the price we receive for root crops during the same period.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Agriculture through the Agri-Export Strategy is working to expand the root-crop sub-sector with increased production in dasheen. Work is also being done with other crops, such as chives and hot peppers, which will occupy signifIcant acreages to satisfy local demand, such as Vincy-Fresh and other agro-processors, and for export via airlift to the US market. Several persons in the private sector have also expressed interest in turmeric and soursop production for export. The local cocoa company has released their figures revealing that 700 acres of cocoa have been established over the last five years, with a remaining demand for another 1300 acres to be cultivated. Also, UK-based Shenton Farms has expressed an intention to cultivate some 2000 acres of coffee in SVG. The interesting thing with these commodities is the capacity for value addition right here in SVG. We have already seen this in reality with our Vincentian Chocolate, and the ability to fetch good and stable prices on the extra-regional market.
Sean Rose: Minister Caesar, what is happening on the farms around the country, as farmers contemplate getting into, or ramping uproot crop production on their farms?
Hon. Saboto Caesar: The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, and Rural Transformation, has taken the Agri-Export Strategy Initiative to another level. We began working with our exporters to increase our market share in all markets both traditional and non-traditional. Secondly, we continue our work to refurbish packaging houses. Lauders is a primary example. La Croix and Belmont facilities are expected to be operational by the end of 2017 and would be managed by private sector entities.
The issue of assistance with production is critical. The Ministry in the short term has provided fertiliser assistance to farmers, in addition, to support from the farmer support company and fertiliser subsidies from the input warehouse. A special envelope for the production of commodities to be airlifted is in the draft stages. I don’t want to lose the opportunity to remind farmers who have taken loans from the Farmers Support Company of their obligations. I wish on the same note to thank those farmers who are honouring their responsibility. I have great confidence in our farmers. The continued commitment expressed is encouraging. There is evidence in our communities that our farmers are increasing their production.