T&T’s future lies in family farms: Raffique points way forward for agricultural industry

Trinidad and Tobago will never achieve full food security.

We could, however, substantially increase the production of foods and fruits that we are good at growing. But first we must convince the majority of the population that we should eat what we produce.

Photo: A meal of pasta. (Courtesy Chexfoods)
Photo: Pasta is a popular imported food.
(Courtesy Chexfoods)

Even if we reverse our addiction to foreign staples and junk foods that cost us possibly up to TT$5 billion a year, we do not have the land-space required to produce the huge tonnage of cereals, tubers, legumes, edible oils, dairy products, meats and other foods that we consume.

As I have noted in this short, three-part series on our food woes, over the last 60 years or so, we have buried much of our prime agricultural lands under asphalt and concrete—a process that is irreversible.

Let us shed no tears over what we cannot change. Let us instead focus on what we can do to become less dependent on foreign foods and how we reduce the food import bill and stimulate or increase exports of the few products for which we can find niche markets.

Nothing I have written thus far is new, or even news. Governments have long been aware of what should be doing to resuscitate food production. There are copious studies conducted by local, regional and international experts and agencies, volumes of documentation pointing the way forward for this country, for CARICOM, and for the wider Caribbean Basin.

Photo: Former UNC Agriculture Minister Vasant Bharath.
Photo: Former UNC Agriculture Minister Vasant Bharath.

The most recent is a 2012-2015 Food Action Plan presented by the Ministry of Food Production, then under the stewardship of Vasant Bharath.

It outlined the problems the agriculture sector faced, proposed measures to deal with them, identified the crops and other produce targeted for growth, and set time-lines to achieve certain production goals.

In 2016, there is little to show by way of implementation and improved production.

Cassava has endured an up-down cycle, other tubers and ground provisions likewise, citrus remains stagnated, bananas we import…

The pineapple farmers have adopted aggressive production and marketing strategies that seem to be paying off, and the notoriety of some of our hot peppers has opened a window of export opportunity for a few farmers.

Photo: A popular vendor sells pepper sauce in Tabaquite. (Copyright Spicenecklace.com)
Photo: A popular vendor sells pepper sauce in Tabaquite.
(Copyright Spicenecklace.com)

But fundamental problems still stifle the few farmers who plod along, against the odds, and many times against powerful forces.

Since most farming activities are conducted on State lands, tenure—leases, tenancies—is critical to farmers. They must have documentation before they can register as bona fide farmers and thereby enjoy incentives or access loans to invest in production.

Many farmers have not had their tenancies/leases renewed for years, so they can be deemed squatters.

Meanwhile governments have rented or leased agricultural lands to wealthy contractors and commercial enterprises. Of the 4,000 acres already leased to ex-sugar workers for agricultural purposes, not a pepper tree has been planted.

You figure out that “donkey logic.”

Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago agricultural industry is in urgent need of revitalisation. (Courtesy Sec.Gov)
Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago agricultural industry is in urgent need of revitalisation.
(Courtesy Sec.Gov)

I wonder how many people are aware that agriculturists pay WASA for non-potable, river or well-water they use for their crops and livestock? This charge is applied even for water downstream WASA’s dams (the paddy fields near the Butler Highway) that will otherwise flow into the sea. They also pay more than residential property owners for potable water used on their farms.

Did I hear someone say “jackass logic”?

Labour is also a huge challenge for farmers: not even CEPEP workers want to till the land, matters not they are doubly-paid (government/farmers).

People who remain in agriculture come from traditional farming families. In a manner of speaking, it’s “in their blood”. There are some younger people who are schooled in agriculture and related disciplines also have a genuine interest in farming.

I argue that the future lies in family farms, not mega-farms—maybe five to ten acres that will require minimal hired labour.

Photo: A family tends to the vegetables. (Courtesy Blackcelebritygiving)
Photo: A family tends to the vegetables.
(Courtesy Blackcelebritygiving)

Mechanisation is limited to tillage and transport, although a handful of rice and cassava farmers own harvesters.

Our focus should be on adding value to everything we produce: the Trinidad Agri-Business Association (TABA) produced and sold “soup packs”, provisions peeled, packaged and ready for working families. Some bakers were baking cassava bread, and “pone” remains an in-demand delicacy.

People will pay for fruits—watermelons, mangoes, paw paws, etc—peeled, sliced and refrigerated for longer shelf-life, which are a healthier alternative to chemically-treated apples and grapes.

Instead of competing with cheap bulk milk, dairy farmers can tap into lucrative markets for yogurt—“dahi” is a superior pro-biotic—ghee and even the decadent “penos.”

Tumeric (“hardee” or saffron), ginger and sea moss, expensive health foods globally, grow wild in this country.

And we should get out of selling cocoa beans, aiming instead to manufacture expensive dark chocolates and the gourmet chocolate beverages.

Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago cocoa industry is in a coma. (Copyright Accra Report)
Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago cocoa industry is in a coma.
(Copyright Accra Report)

There are many more innovative ways we can enhance and exploit the limited foods, spices and fruits we produce.

But we need first to envision a 21st Century agri-scape and muster the will to make it happen.


Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One titled: Doomed to importing foods: the economic risk of our diet; and HERE to read Part Two titled: Descent into imports-dependence: How colonialism affects our diet, even today.

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About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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  1. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114

    Yeah sorry, this is not grounded in reality

  2. Mr. Shah could have done more research before writing his article. Montserrat Cocoa Farmers, are now a cocoa co-operative that is comprised of small plot owners using a centralised processing facility. This co-operative has constantly won awards for quality and flavour. They produce 20MT of beans per year and currently pay there members the highest ever for cocoa beans in T&T history. I Tobago the same model exists and has been so for ten [10] years, In Tobago the Tobago Cocoa Farmers Association, produce high quality beans, winning a Cocoa of Excellence Award in 2011, which are made into gourmet dark chocolates and sold in Tobago, USA and Europe. The large estate [Colonial model] has been impractical since independence for obvious socio-economic factors.

  3. If this is the case, then make life easier for the farmers to farm…

  4. ask Green Thumb Gardens about your personal house-hold garden…

  5. Gave some friends some homemade chocolate (or cocoa) tea during winter in the US, and they couldn’t get enough of it.

    They wanted Trinidad rum and beer but it couldn’t be easily sourced at a reasonable price, yet rum and beer from Barbados and Jamaica were easily available and a competitively priced. Anywhere I went, I saw products from Barbados (Banks Beer) and Jamaica (Appleton and Red Stripe). It was shameful to T&T that the only product you could source at the time was Angostura bitters in Walmart (there’s crix now).

    The products from Jamaica and Barbados were used as a marketing tool for persons to become familiar with these States. We claim to have such a good manufacturing industry, but our foreign marketing is poor.

    Scotch bonnet peppers were in demand in the US Midwest, and had to be sourced from Haiti and Jamaica. Imagine, Mexico and Costa Rica are producing Moruga Scorpion peppers for the US market and we are not.

    Where are all the research from UWI and ECIAF, are they left to collect dust on shelves.

    As usualy, we wait for others to appreciate our products and profit of it and then we cry fowl. The same thing happened with the steel pan. Pan is taught in schools in the US. I went to a pan concert performed by ‘white people’ – not one Trini. The audience loved the sound. Met a caucasian man who charges hundreds of US $ for 30 minute pan concerts in the US. He used to play in one of our steelbands, and has profited generously from marketing the instrument in his home State.

    Have we understood the value of tonka bean which fetches a high price in the world market? 4 oz of Tonka bean absolute is US$831.00!!!!!!! It is used for gourmet foods, and perfumes. Yet we have it rotting on the ground. What about the exportation of shadon beni which is in high demand by Caribbean people, Vietnamese and Latin Americans.

    We need to set our gaze and efforts in exporting our products and reduce the bureaucracy and the difficulties for exporting products from T&T. The process for exportation is soooooo cumbersome and you have to walk around like a headless chicken trying to figure out what to do and where to go to get this certificate and that document…just thinking about the process is enough to turn you off.

  6. Paradial larceny is a huge problem as well.

  7. Excellent article,,however, the Caroni lands are being utilized by some farmers, rented and planted with sweet potato, pumpkin and other short crops. However, the majority is idle, and created a fire hazard for farmers who cultivate. Most projects lack basic infrastructure , and most ex workers are aged, and unable to cultivate, while their children are not encouraged to return to the land.
    If there is a ready market identified, with easier soft loans, payable to the agro shops, it might create a difference. But to bring some level of success, the majority of the Extension need to work closer with the farmers,,,

  8. Enjoyed this series but what will it take to do what we know can be done and needs to be done?

  9. At last..something that makes sense among all the rubbish I have been reading recently.

  10. Raf showing that his agri roots and instincts still very relevant. This is a global movement. We need to get on board.

  11. “And we should get out of selling cocoa beans, aiming instead to manufacture expensive dark chocolates and the gourmet chocolate beverages.”

    Shameless plug: http://www.arendel.com/

    Family run and all.

  12. Cited this piece twice in the Senate today. On point

    • Wish people also cited non-tangibles as well. I was reading about how a Software Engineer at LinkedIn from UWI has been doing so well.

      Doesn’t brain drain concern anyone in the government? Or do they willfully create the conditions so that there is less criticism? 🙂

    • Well Clarence, Someone needs to cut the red tape for farmers who lease government land. My dad has been trying to renew his lease for his farm in Carlsen Field for sometime and is afraid to expand his operations without a renewed lease so right now doing the minimum to get the lease renewed before getting anything else done. He put the option to buy the land as well but that was turned down as well.

    • If you heard me since September 2015, the land administration system collapsed years ago. Leases cannot be granted or renewed. The backlog is over 75,000. I have to build a system to deal with this. It’s not red tape, it’s the collapse of a system.

    • So what recourse does he and other farmers in this position have. The farm is viable but not operating at full capacity because the lease has expired and not been renewed for sometime. This has been ongoing for over 10 years and it is losing money. My other question is can’t this system be put out to tender? if government employees are overloaded? I live in Canada currently so it is hard to follow the current government positions, most of what I get it through FB and speaking with family members still in Trinidad. This farm has been family operated for over 30 years and he has asked me to return home to help but I dont see the point if this land lease issue is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

    • He like all other users of State Lands would have to wait. The backlog covers 3 to 4 decades

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