Onion results in T&T

In the March 2nd edition of Stabroek News a Trinidad Express report was carried on the harvesting of what has been described as the first-ever commercially viable onion crop in the Twin-Island Republic. The Tucker Valley Farm, Chaguaramas pilot project was run by the Trinidad Ministry of Food Production and Caribbean Chemicals Ltd which incidentally has a presence in Guyana.

An obviously proud Food Production Minister Mr Vasant Bharath was pictured stooping amid a field of Mercedes onions inspecting with other officials, the results of the project. According to the report, 30,000 plants in three varieties were seeded in November last year, transplanted in December and matured 90 days later.

Mr Bharath said in the report that the media had not been told about the project. He said “We wanted to do it and make sure it could work and then bring you all here to show the fruits of our labour”.

Mr Joe Pires, the Managing Director of Caribbean Chemicals stated that onions was one of the four crops – carrots, potatoes and peanuts being the others – that they wanted to focus on because of the enormous amount spent to import them. He added that a 100-acre farm could provide 20 per cent of the  need for onions in Trinidad and his company was trying to acquire land in Chaguaramas for a commercial operation. Over the last five years, Port-of-Spain has imported around US$16M worth of onions.

According to Mr Bharath the only thing that had prevented onion farming in the past had been a lack of will. He disclosed that a similar pilot project had been tried with carrots but had come to naught because of disease and irrigation problems but a second attempt was already underway. The Ministry was also reviving the citrus industry and around 150,000 citrus plants are to be sown.

While exceedingly important, Minister Bharath’s project is not nuclear science or revolutionary. All it required was a plan, the right soil and planters and it yielded onions.

And what of Guyana and the five-year Grow More Food campaign of the previous Jagdeo government? It flattered to deceive with  the four Ps – plantain, peppers, pine and peanuts which later morphed into a broader effort. Today, with a different Minister of Agriculture in place and the previous one having been transferred to a new ministry one has to wonder whether there were any successes at all in this campaign and whether it has even marginally helped to ease the food import bill, boost exports and lift the fortunes of the legions of small farmers.

Very early in the life of the last Jagdeo administration it had been suggested that Minister Robert Persaud and his technical staff should concentrate on two areas: cutting the food import bill by focusing on four or so of the most imported items and determining the feasibility of their cultivation here and agglomerating small farmers into hubs oriented towards exports. In the case of the former, as in Trinidad, potatoes, onions and carrots were high on the import list. Instead of one or two importers monopolizing the trade and using up foreign exchange, local farmers would benefit from guaranteed markets and the money would remain in this economy.

Forget the luxury of the 20 uninterrupted years that agriculture ministries under the PPP/C have had to produce commercially viable crops of onions and potatoes to sate local needs and just focus on the period 2006-2011. It captured the confluence of the much-vaunted Jagdeo Initiative on Agriculture and the supposedly ambitious Grow More Food campaign. On the face of it, they would both have to be rated as comprehensive failures as there is yet no sign of a successful pilot project over the five-year period let alone a graduation to commercial cultivation. The simplicity of identifying the appropriate soil type, finding the right growers and creating a market pathway eluded the Ministry of Agriculture completely even as container after container of potatoes, onions and carrots flooded the market.

Minister Persaud’s ministry was fond of trying to kerfuffle the public when questions were raised about the effectiveness of its food campaign. A path-breaking series by Stabroek News on the Grow More Food campaign however exposed the lack of knowledge of it among farmers in various parts of the country and the troubling but understandable malady that aged growers were finding it difficult to keep farms going and to attract younger workers.

The litmus test of the success of such a campaign would always be: Can the import bill be cut? Where are the onions and potatoes to substantiate this?

Rice and beans in Region Nine, butternut squash and zucchini in Region Four and turmeric and black pepper at NAREI won’t slash the import bill. In this respect the campaign was a miserable failure and not a cheap one at that. How expensive it was is still a mystery. Given the concerted focus in the new Parliament on accountability and transparency, the expenditure on this particular programme and whether it offered value for money should be the subject of a special investigation by the Office of the Auditor General, the report of which for 2010 made no reference at all to the Grow More Food campaign, and the Economic Services Committee of Parliament. Minister Ramsammy should also mount a review of the campaign.

As poor as the results have been thus far, the Ministry of Agriculture must not lose sight of the need and opportunity for pushing ahead with the potatoes and onions programme. Given the involvement of Caribbean Chemicals in Trinidad, the company could well be asked to try to replicate its results here if it was afforded the right type of land and conditions.

It may well be that the Trinidad experiment may not survive the harsh realities of agriculture, climate change and cheap imports. However, onions ready for reaping is far, far ahead of where the local agriculture sector is at the moment and an effort has to be made again to settle once and for all whether onions and potatoes can be commercially grown here and exported to other parts, even Trinidad.

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