The challenge of managing cane production

Salvaging Sugar

Of the four components that comprise the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) – Agriculture, Factory, Human Resources/Industrial Relations and Finance – Agriculture is by far the largest; in quantitative terms Agriculture represents 65 per cent of GuySuCo.

More than that, it is, arguably, the most difficult component to manage. Each of the other three components of the company must look to the field in contemplating both their own individual fortunes and the fortunes of the sugar industry as a whole.

The assessment of the performance of agriculture as a component of the industry’s overall performance in recent years as set out in the company’s 2009-2018 Strategic Blueprint is both blunt and disturbing. “Since 2006, the corporation failed to achieve cane production targets. The production achieved in 2008 was the lowest in nine years.” That is what the Strategic Blueprint says about the company’s field performance in recent years. Some of the contributing factors to the underperformance in the field like erratic weather patterns and what would appear to be a steady loss of interest in the rigours of cane harvesting in the communities traditionally associated with this back-breaking pursuit – are beyond the industry’s control. Others, like poor management and ill-advised decision-making, concessions which, again, are made in the Strategic Blueprint, must be placed squarely at the company’s door.

The “make do policy”: Running repairs to a Guysuco tractor

Then there is capital shortage, the result it seems of disproportionate expenditure on labour arising out of a quixotic industrial relations culture that manifests itself in ever rising wage increase awards and what the blueprint describes as “an inability to substantially reduce employment numbers on the payroll.” High labour costs, which have accounted for as much as 57 per cent of operational costs, mean, among other things that there is less to spend on the needs of the field.

Raymond Sangster is currently in his second year as General Manager, Agricultural Services, a job which places him in charge of the fields in the eight operating sugar estates. He has worked in the industry for three decades and like some of the other ‘old hands’ has both a professional and an emotional attachment to sugar. GuySuCo’s ultimate goal, he says, is to produce 420,000 tonnes of sugar. That, he concedes remains a target that is unattainable in the short term.

It is the challenge of creating the conditions for producing sufficient cane to allow the industry to meet a sugar production target that appears to preoccupy Sangster most. He regards what is sometimes a volatile industrial relations climate in the industry as the least imposing of the labour shortage challenges. He is blunt about what he believes is the greater problem. “Not enough people want to cut cane anymore. If you look at the traditional areas where labour has come from you will find that an increasing number of younger, more educated people are coming from those areas. We have to mechanize. There is no option.” The mechanization programme is already underway. At Skeldon, 65 per cent of the acreage under cane has been configured for mechanization. The other seven estates are in earlier stages of mechanization. The need to mechanize could hardly have come at a worst time. It is a costly exercise. The company has already acquired 52 Bell Loaders – used to load the cane onto punts and will acquire another ten this year. Each Bell Loader costs around $13 million. Still, Sangster says, GuySuCo has no choice. It’s a critical labour-saving device.

The need for mechanization is most urgent at Skeldon. If the factory is to meet its target it must be fed with 7,200 tonnes of cane per hour. The attendant labour requirements would render the operation altogether unprofitable. Skeldon apart, GuySuCo is seeking to hasten mechanization at its East Demerara estates – LBI and Enmore – where labour vulnerability is greatest.

But even mechanization is no panacea for transforming the fortunes of the industry. Sangster explains that the Bell Loaders and Billet Harvesters become inoperable during rainy periods. After the rains, a return to harvesting must still wait for several days. Drainage and irrigation, Sangster said, is the single biggest challenge to cultivating cane. In response to the vagaries of the weather, GuySuCo is seeking to use mechanization to reduce its cropping period from the current 35 weeks to around 26 weeks.

How to re-tool the industry in circumstances where poor production has created a scarcity of capital is a critical concern, Sangster said. “The fact is that when production drops capital drops.” He talks about “cheaper alternatives,” a euphemism for what the Strategic Blueprint describes as a “make do” policy. It is not an ideal response but in the circumstances it will have to do.

Last year was a “better year”, Sangster said. Field operations secured around $500 million for the purchase of Tiller Tractors. That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. GuySuCo requires around $3.5 billion annually to maintain its agricultural infrastructure and machinery.

Sangster continues to see the transformation of the fortunes of the sugar industry as a challenge that must be met, but the Strategic Blueprint’s assessment of “the reality of the industry” is a daunting one. As far as the industry’s field operations are concerned it points out that “many structures, equipment and machinery” need to be replaced “urgently” Additionally, it cites the fact that “structures have collapsed, including aqueducts, leading to increased haulage distances for canes from parts of some estates. The situation has resulted from lack of timely replacement/repair due to continuous deferral of capital.” Two years ago, when the Blueprint was published, only half of the 717 bridges used in the company’s field operations were regarded as being in fair condition. Similarly, only 148 of GuySuCo’s 418 tractors were in good condition.

GuySuCo has long come to terms with the consequences of the loss of experienced management and Sangster said that over the past sixteen months the company has embarked on an accelerated training programme in agricultural field operations for all levels of staff. The initiative has resulted in some measure of improvement in yield, he said, though he was quick to add before it got to a level where it can hold the promise of the elusive target of 420,000 tonnes of sugar, cane production still has a long, hard road to travel.

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