(Barbados Nation) What is one of the worst sights a farmer can ever face?
The owner of Brighton Plantation, Michael Pile, says it is coming to grips with the realization that months of hard work has been stolen away by a thief in the night.
“There is nothing more soul-destroying than to go into a field, which is a few weeks away from being harvested, early in the morning and seeing it has been absolutely ransacked,” he told the SUNDAY SUN at the office of his St George plantation on Friday.
The scourge of praedial larceny is a continual, never ending problem for farmers in Barbados. And Pile said that contrary to statistics, it was not decreasing at all.
“It is not that crop theft is down; people are just so fed up they are simply not reporting it anymore,” he said.
Pile said he spends large amounts of money to keep his crops as safe as possible, saying he had spent more than Bds$10 000 hiring people to keep watch “from dusk till dawn” for the past two and a half months. He also said he had spent more than Bds$6 500 in vehicle repairs because of constant use patrolling in cart roads.
“We have an ongoing problem with crop theft but around two and a half months ago, it started to get worse so we started watching the fields from dusk till dawn. On an average week, if it isn’t me, it will be one of my workers in the fields at night with bright lights.
“However, I’m not going to ask any one of my workers to accost any of these guys as the minimum they (the thieves) would have is a knife,” he said, adding they used the lights to run people “two or three nights a week”.
Despite this, he said they had lost Bds$15 000 in stolen carrots and potatoes in 2012. He said this type of theft would continue to plague farmers until Barbados got serious about the problem.
“There is no real serious penalty for crop theft so I can’t even blame the police because to go through all the trouble of catching someone only for a small penalty . . . .”
Pile said crop thieves were not the most discerning of individuals and would gladly destroy hundreds of pounds of young carrots just to reap a hundred pounds of mature ones for their own profit. He said they also could not know and did not care that the crops they stole might have recently been sprayed and were not fit for human consumption.
Managing director of Armag Farms Richard Armstrong experienced exactly what Pile was describing last Friday morning. By the time he had reached the fields on Kelly Land in Colleton, St John, around 1 500 rods of sweet potatoes were missing – gone in a night.
He said praedial larceny could not be a small-time activity given the sheer amount of produce involved.
“I am concerned with the amount of stealing going on. Someone big in this country is responsible but my biggest beef is with the police for not taking this seriously. If it was gold, they would be after them,” he said.
To make things worse, the particular kind of sweet potato stolen was the variety Armstrong was trying to cultivate for his food processing business making sweet potato fries. He said it was at least fortunate they were not in the middle of full-scale production.
“The fries project is on hold as the equipment we had was not able to meet the demand so we are in the process of setting up a much bigger plant. Hopefully in March we will be producing yam and sweet potato products and later, breadfruit and corn products, once people don’t steal them all first. If we were in production now, a blow like this would have halted it or caused us to substitute an inferior product,” he said.
Armstrong said Kelly Land was not their only property being hit by thieves as they had reports of thefts at Cow House Land in Sunbury, St Philip; Leaders in Hampton, St Philip and Lodge Line in St John. He said it would be far too expensive to place fencing around all their property because if they did, they would have to pass on the high cost to consumers.
Armstrong listed his losses as follows: at least Bds$30 000 in potatoes for the year and Bds$60 000 in cassava which he had only recently started producing on a regular basis; a vehicle replacement at the cost of Bds$89 000 because of wear and tear being used 24/7 in cart roads, and the cost of the watching the crops.
His workers, the plantation manager said, were unarmed and untrained to try to stop thieves but said he would be willing to pay off-duty police officers to watch his fields.
Armstrong said he could no longer consider using the fields on the perimeter of the farms for growing fruit such as sweet tamarind to be used in his processing plant now under construction, since the risk of theft increased with the distance from the plantation yard and surveillance of these fields was particularly difficult.
Senator Dr Frances Chandler, a longtime campaigner against praedial larceny, said she was not confident anything could be done as long as Government continued to not treat agriculture seriously.
“Honestly, I don’t know what can be said that has not been said a million times over the last few decades – and to absolutely no avail. The politicians from both parties continue with their rhetoric and lip service to agriculture but have failed to deal with one of the major, if not the major constraint to agriculture in Barbados – praedial larceny.
“When the private sector attempted to enforce the legislation, it was given no support from Government, and in my opinion, the police do not treat crimes in the agricultural sector with the same seriousness that they do those in the tourism and business sectors, so the losses continue, unabated.
“Yet farmers are supposed to perform miracles and produce crops at minimum prices when they have to withstand losses due to the vagaries of the weather, pests and diseases, unfair competition from Government, unproductive labour and the biggest scourge of all – praedial larceny,” she added.
A frustrated Chandler queried: “Will it take starvation for the powers that be and the country in general to realize the importance of agriculture and treat it with the seriousness and respect it is due?”
Chief executive officer of the Barbados Agricultural Society James Paul reiterated that as long as thieves had a way to dispose of produce, they would continue to do so.
“[One of the problems are that] supermarkets have to ensure their suppliers are legitimate but there are also middle men who pay for produce and I don’t know how much they certify who brings them produce. We need to develop a monitoring system which would allow only those people who have grown their own crops legitimately to sell them,” he said.
Paul, who is also an MP, stressed that praedial larceny was a social issue as well as Barbadians in general did not take it seriously enough.
“Climbing up someone’s apple tree to steal apples is praedial larceny and there is where it all begins. We have developed a tolerance for praedial larceny so it’s not just about placing legislation, but how far we are willing to go to enforce it. If perpetrators are given a slap on the wrist they will do it again.”