I am in New York on business and so what I write here is from memory and not from my notes which are on my desktop computer in Guyana.
I refer to a letter from Ganga Persaud which was published in the Stabroek News of the 14th September 2017 and captioned ‘Give the sugar workers land at Wales, and Burma an infusion of cash and more attention for proper paddy seedling production.’
In this letter Mr Persaud says, “The curtain has been drawn and the stage is boldly set to go into full-time paddy production at the now abandoned Wales Sugar Plantation. The lands that have been converted by the Ministry of Agriculture for the sole purpose of propagating new strains of seed paddy through state agency GRDB and state institution, the Burma Rice Research Station, is another government ploy to go into paddy production in order to fully occupy the vast unutilised cane lands at Wales Estate. The whole concept is for the state to go into competition with the country’s peasant rice farmers.”
All of this is total nonsense! And since this rice project was conceived by me, I have to explain my thinking about it, since I would not want anyone to get away with the idea that I would conceive such a hare-brained scheme as Mr Persaud describes as legitimate diversification. At all times I felt that aquaculture was the answer to Guyana’s total problem in agriculture, and the reason was that all of the liabilities we currently see in growing sugar cane today, become assets for us in aquaculture.
- Poorly tidal drained, low-lying land below sea level, becomes a major asset for aquaculture since we will be using flooded fields to grow fish.
- The heavy, swelling clay soils which exist on the Guyana coast become assets, since they hold water for ponds extremely well.
- The layout of the cambered beds which are so problematical for the mechanisation of sugar cane harvesting and make us completely uncompetitive in sugar cane production, become less of a problem, since as the bottom of ponds, they mean nothing whether they are cambered or flat. But we should flatten them as a matter of policy.
- The heavy rainfall of Guyana will be an asset rather than such a massive liability.
Editor, there is more but I will stop there.
In May 2016 at my instigation, the board of GuySuCo invited a US company Aquasol to come to Guyana and tell us if my vison which I presented to the board successfully, and which was adopted, whether Guyana had the ability to become a world class aquaculture producer, both of shrimp and tilapa. The Aquasol team which included Dr Claude Boyd, a world class expert on aquaculture, sat in the GuySuCo boardroom in May 2016 and told the board that indeed we appear to have ideal conditions for aquaculture, with two exceptions: 1. The water and land was a little acid and 2. the cost of electricity was a bit expensive, but that a yield of 10,000 pounds of tilapia per acre per year was possible. The first problem of the acidity could have been easily and not expensively corrected with limestone applications after every crop, but the cost of electricity we will have to live with until we became an oil producing nation in a few years.
So we decided to go ahead with the 300 acre trial which I had designed for GuySuCo. I chose this specific acreage for a reason; it established that our production would be spread over a 300 day period per year. This meant that firstly our field and later processing plant employees would be working 300 days a year, and not be seasonal workers as they are in sugar and rice. Secondly, that we will be supplying product to a processor in Guyana and later our own processing plant at Wales, every day all year except Sundays. Clearly if you are going to be producing such a perishable product which must be sent to the US unfrozen but fresh packed in ice less than 36 hours after harvesting, you have to reap consistently and not all in a few months, and consequently not supply to your buyers. You do not want to have millions of pounds in a few months, and then nothing for the rest of the year, because you would not be a serious supplier. Thirdly, in this plan we can in fact have our hatching and stocking programme for the 300 acre trial at around an acre a day, or 7 acres a week, which is very doable and requires a much smaller workforce doing less strenuous work with more continuous earning power all year.
Very soon after establishing the fact that that Guyana had great potential as a grower of aquaculture on the basis of what was said by Dr Claude Boyd of Auburn University in the US, I decided that I must learn everything I could about growing tilapia. I even designed and set up a small aquaponics operation in my yard to see first hand what the problems could be in time. And I have to give due recognition to my friend Mr Tejnarine Geer, formally Chief Fisheries Officer at Guyana’s Ministry of Agriculture who is now an aquaculture consultant in Guyana serving both Guyana and Suriname at this time. We decided that my concept which was presented to the board and had their blessing, was that since 70% of the expense of growing tilapia is the feed cost, we must explore possibilities of making our own feed, which was the key to success. An acute case of amnesia prevented the executives of GuySuCo from remembering all of this.
And clearly to manufacture our own feed we would need raw materials, and it turns out that broken rice, rice bran and fish and shrimp protein which are available in Guyana in abundance and at an excellent price were the key to profitability. Once we decided to make our own feed using these ingredients, I spoke to Mr Pritipaul Singh and had a written MOU from him to sell us their fish waste at an excellent price; we also spoke to some rice mill people and secured excellent prices and a promise to supply both broken rice and rice bran.
The Wales rice project was an integral part of the aquaculture project, but was a forward looking plan at least 2-3 years in the future since there was no way that we can have a rice mill producing our own rice and by products in the near future with just a such a small acreage under rice. Therefore I asked the GuySuCo board to give permission to plant 485 acres of rice at Wales for this purpose. The 485 acres identified was not an accident, since it was land which had been converted by the field equipment department of GuySuCo many decades ago, and was therefore level land, under a light ridge and furrow layout and not cambered beds so appropriate for rice cultivation.
To do it on more land than 485 acres would not be easy, and maybe not even advisable, since converting cambered beds to flat land is very expensive, but if we got good yields from the laser levelling and the fact that we control our water completely at Wales, unlike most small farmers, we could possibly achieve a better yield. If that was so perhaps we can extend the cultivation of rice to around 1600 acres in time with our own rice mill.
So in the long run I saw the planting of rice at Wales as offering to ourselves two of the main ingredients of our fish feed at our own rice mill installation from perhaps 1600 acres. But there was another reason why we should grow our own rice and mill it ourselves at Wales in conjunction with aquaculture. Editor, we would be growing fish at Wales, perhaps as much as 3000 acres in time, producing 30 million pounds of fish a year at a selling price of US 80 cents a pound, which would be a gross income to GuySuCo of US$24 million per year, and approximately US$8000 per acre per year, when sugar at current yields was only giving us a gross income of less than US$1000 per acre per year. But the fish create metabolic waste in the water and since they are growing on the same location in adjoining fields, it was possible in time to put the fish waste water into the rice fields and fertilize them that way, at no fertilizer cost, rather than flushing it into the Demerara river. This new branch of agriculture called aquaponics, ie using fish waste to fertilize plants is gaining momentum globally, and quite a bit of grant aid money is available for such green projects. Mr Geer and I have discussed this, and it was always a possibility in time. And my backyard operation is in fact aquaponics.
To see where we can go with this new King which is fish and not sugar, those with a computer must enter Tropical Tilapia on youTube and see what is happening in the world today, especially our part of the world.
Finally Editor, since we were going to have our pilot programme to produce rice paddy at Wales for feed manufacture in the future, one must realise, as I did, that in doing so we were in fact growing this rice on land which is for rice, virgin land. We would be rather stupid to try to sell the Wales paddy, which was not contaminated by red rice or bastard drop varieties over time for $1000 more per bag than paddy to manufacture rice, and the Ministry of Agriculture liked the concept so much, that they asked GRDB to finance the project for us. There is nothing sinister about any of this. But I did not see how we can sustain this growing of paddy for seed for more than, say, 3 crops.
These are the facts: since I left GuySuCo there is no one there with this complete vision and they are clearly lost, which is why I keep saying that GuySuCo cannot diversify itself.
At no time did we attempt to destroy the livelihood of the rice farmers; that is patent nonsense, and will mislead rice farmers into believing that the current government has an obscene agenda in the rice industry, to the detriment of rice farmers.