By Jeff Trotman
Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy has said that the days of subsistence farming are over and while small farmers realise that they must move away from that mindset, they are stuck in the old way of doing things.
Speaking at a farmers’ meeting at the Guyana International Con-ference Centre during the just concluded Caribbean Week of Agriculture, Ramsammy said for several years now there has been a lot of talk of moving away from subsistence, backyard farming to establishing small enterprises.
He said that a lot of people grew up when cash crops were used to feed the family and the excess produce was used to supply the local market but nowadays people want to supply the service industry – hotels and restaurants – even though they have not changed from the way farming has been traditionally done.
According to him, the government, technical institutions and even farmers have done a lot to move away from the old way of farming but farmers, sometimes, are their own worst enemies. In establishing this point, Ramsammy said, “The truth is, selling pepper at the community market is not going to make you wealthy.” According to him that used to work in another period of the country’s history when life was simple and less complex than it is today because people have more desires such as travelling abroad on vacation and purchasing larger number of household durables and luxury items that formerly were the domain of the middle class.
He said that in the past the challenge used to be buying two Pepsi and a cake for the children but life has long gone past that. “Now the children and grandchildren will not just accept a book from you. They want Blackberry Z10. So when you could have sold two pounds of pepper and bought something for your grandchild, you can’t do that anymore. You can’t even sell enough pepper for the year to buy the Blackberry Z10 for your child. So, you have to change how you do things. You have to do real business now. The days of the subsistence farmer is dead, sisters and brothers…”
Noting that is the crux of the problem for farmers, Ramsammy said the donor agencies that come to help small farmers place emphasis on subsistence farming but he is not interested in such donations. “They can take their money and go back because we want to do something that generates wealth. We want to become farmers … equal to the doctor, the engineer and other professions.”
Stating that the image of farmers as peasants must be changed, Ramsammy said that a rice farmer makes $100M a year but he is regarded as being a peasant but someone with a little cake shop next door and probably never generated as much as $500,000 a year is regarded as a businessman.
“That’s the history we grew up in: farmers as peasants and you are a farmer because you couldn’t do anything better. Isn’t that our reality?” he asked before adding, “We got to change it. We have to let people see that farming is an enterprise.”
The meeting was organised by the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN) to encourage Guyanese farmers to join the network, which incorporates over 500,000 farmers in the fifteen Caricom member states. Ramsammy said that he was glad that such a forum was part of Caribbean Week of Agriculture and he thanked CaFAN for holding it.
Ramsammy stated that if one were do value-added, one needed to have consistent quality. He also highlighted the need for farmers to engage in good record-keeping so as to ensure that they can supply the market demands in a sustainable manner. In this regard, the minister said production needs to be organised. “Right now, it’s not organised and unless we cooperate we are not going to move from where we are.” He also mentioned that farmers engage in a lot of selfishness and undercut one another.
He bemoaned another situation in which cassava growers were approached to produce pineapples at a reasonable price so they stopped planting cassava and produced pineapples, only to be faced with the potential buyer not turning up to purchase the pineapples and the farmers were stuck with a commodity that they could not sell.
He said the farmers will have to find out what it is that people want then produce to meet the market demand. Additionally, the produce must be of high quality and safe based on rules and regulations, “which our famers don’t want to do.”
Stressing that traceability is important, the minister said that farmers have to register their farms. “Traceability is a fact of life today because you can’t sell unless you have traceability in place. You got to have certified farms and certified farming means … We got to know what kind of fertilizer you’re using; we got to know when you started your crop; we got to know, who handling these things, etc. If we are not willing to do these things, we will remain small subsistent farmers with the vagaries of not only the weather but (also) the vagaries of people’s options and choices. You have to remove these things,” the minister said, adding that farmers need to cooperate and work together.
“This time next year… we will have a commercial dairy plant, producing pasteurized milk and producing cheese for our supermarkets. But the farmers will have to cooperate,” the minister said, adding that he has about three hundred farmers, who cannot agree with one another. “So, in two weeks’ time, I’m shifting the plant to some other site because if they can’t get their act together to produce the milk, I’m going someplace else.”
It was recently announced that Canada is going to be helping with this dairy plant.
Ramsammy said Guyana will begin to zone the country’s agricultural production to suit the demands of the consumers, “and our farmers will need to cooperate with us. If we do not do that, we will not be able to move forward. Cash crop farmers have a huge opportunity. The need for food around the world is growing and people want quality food. We also are changing our consumption patterns and our choice of food. We eat more out today than we eat in; more people are eating in restaurants and in hotels than ever before in our history,” the minister said.
Noting that that is a huge opportunity for local farmers, the minister said that he wanted to end with the point that for far too long farmers had been on the low end of the pecking order in Caribbean and Guyanese society, “in the sense that you produce but you do not benefit from the profit of what you produce.”
He stressed that too many middlemen are involved in the marketing of agricultural products and the country must bring that to a stop now. He said the Georgetown Public Hospital is one of the largest consumers of food in the country, producing 4,000 meals every single day of the year. “That’s a lot of eggs, a lot of bora, a lot of pumpkin, a lot of fish…”
Highlighting that the hospital obtains produce grown by small farmers but it is not purchasing from them, Ramsammy said: “They’re buying it from a middleman because government stipulates that one has to tender but you are not tendering. I tender and I charge one hundred dollars for a bundle of bora and I buy it from you for ten dollars. By the time I transport it from you to the hospital, it’s another ten dollars. So, twenty dollars become the value of the bora. I make eighty dollars profit. From your ten dollars, you have to take out all your expenses and you are left with next to nothing.”
Stating that the Georgetown Hospital must be able to purchase directly from farmers, Ramsammy said that he wants to change the way the Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC) works. “They must come and pick up your products and the hospital buys from them. But GMC will not be able to pick up for Georgetown Hospital from 1,000 of you. We have to say, you five will produce the bora. You five will produce the pepper … That’s the new way we want to do business but I don’t want [people to] say discrimination! That’s the struggle we go through because we ain’t working together …”
He said the last thing he wants to do is to start something that benefits farmers only be ridiculed and criticized. According to him, people must understand that the administration is not malicious. Rather, it is trying to be good and get the best results.
The agriculture minister reiterated that he wants to work with local small farmers because the traditional crops that have been grown are good but there are better varieties that can give higher yields. He said, “Same input, same amount of labour, same amount of land that could double, triple, quadruple our production and I’m not talking about new technology like shade technology, hydroponics all of which, on top of it, add even more to our yield. And that means you could give your children your farm. For once we add size to the thing, it makes it sexy and then people want to do it. So, there is your future … But you have to work together… Market must come first. I welcome the idea that our farmers must work together.”
Grow more food
Though the PPP/C has been in office for 21 consecutive years, critics say it has failed to devise a successful overarching framework for the non-traditional agriculture sector to operate. Various initiatives have been tried but have failed to see a big spurt in exports and earnings. At one point the four Ps initiative was tried: a focus on the growth of plantain, pumpkin, peppers and pineapples. This then evolved in to a market-led drive to determine which crops would be grown. Subsequently there was significant investment in two packing houses to process exports but these have been under-utilised. Under Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud, an expensive Grow More Food campaign was launched which was subsequently criticized by farmers and which critics said had unclear objectives. The programme as originally conceived is no longer in effect and no analysis of it has been forthcoming from the government.