Mon | Oct 22, 2018

Glenn Tucker | Make farming bear fruit

Published:Sunday | June 10, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Over the past week, two parliamentarians made comments regarding agriculture that caught my attention.

First, Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw said he was looking for avenues to enable farmers to get cheaper loans. Then, Ronald Thwaites bemoaned the fact that children continue to consume empty-caloried, sugary products and wished for the day when the agricultural sector would produce healthy, nutritious alternatives. Minister Shaw's success could help to make Rev Thwaites' wishes a reality.

This is the second announcement from Mr Shaw that has excited me. When he assumed the portfolio, he announced that there would be a major push to make government lands available to prospective farmers. I don't want to burst Mr Shaw's bubble, but he needs to know that, at present, it is easier for a pregnant camel to stagger through the eye of a needle than for an ordinary Jamaican to lease government land.

Many Jamaicans, in frustration, have made the fatal mistake of purchasing land for farming and discovering - belatedly - that the cost of capital is prohibitive. Nothing is left for development.

If Mr Shaw attempted to make a comparison, he would discover that our competitors are operating in far more favourable conditions. Interest rates are lower, and the overall cost of doing business is more attractive.

Something that happened years ago but is still fresh in my mind is the case of an acquaintance who won a major settlement in a US court. Never comfortable in the US, he decided to return to Jamaica and set up an agro-processing business. He applied for land to lease. Time passed. Nothing.

We were at a social gathering at the Mona Visitors' Lodge when he mentioned that he had been trying for two and a half years to get government land. A variety of comments and suggestions were made. One person told him he was wasting his time and suggested another territory in the Caribbean that he should consider. Two days later, he left to spend three days there and 'look around'. He spent four days, and returned with a signed, stamped lease for twice the amount of land he was seeking here. One clause in the lease caught my attention: "... Payment to be made in arrears at the end of each year ... ."

But that was not all. That government had dangled a tempting bag of goodies if he decided to start operations there, like a three-year moratorium on all payments. and interest-free this, and duty-free that ... . They seemed, in my friend's words, to be "hungry".

Why can't we be as "hungry", Mr Shaw? Everyone I talk to is simply amazed at the amount of idle land in this country. Do you really think nobody wants it?

It's not just interest rates, and land. There are a variety of decisions that can be more farmer-friendly. Why are we demanding payments from farmers before they market their produce? Where is the money to come from? Why are the inputs so expensive? An experience could help to convey my ideas.

I visited a pig farm in Iowa. The owner, Rod, told me that there were 46,000 pigs on the farm. It was solar-powered, and the waste was also used for fuel. It was completely automated. I saw no workers and was told that, depending on the stage of the production cycle, a few workers were taken on, but when he is absent, his son 'oversees' things.

When I went to his home, I discovered that this son was 14 years old. The entire operation could be monitored on screens from home. The cheapest input was commercial ration. That was the second livestock operation that I observed and the cost of commercial ration was dirt cheap.

Finally, not one cent was paid for any item until the product went to market. Then, the necessary deductions, fees, etc., were made.

Here, the cost of commercial ration is the most expensive item for the farmer. This dwarfs his profit margin. The big winners in our agricultural sector are the feed and fertiliser companies.

When I was a child, there was a man in my town who had a busy business carrying people to an obeah man in another town. What I was never able to understand was that people claimed he did not charge to transport them. So how did he benefit?

I met him again in my adult years, in Kingston, and we became fast friends. When he trusted me enough, he explained that when people realised that they didn't have to pay for the ride, they came in droves. And he was praised and loved for his helpfulness. He said only a fraction of that number would come if they had to pay him. So, the free ride increased the clientele. Yes! but how did he benefit?

Well, it turns out that the obeah man - who was really a shoemaker - was his cousin. And he had included my new friend's fare in his consultation fee.

When we meet our more creative brothers and sisters, we either laugh at them or lock them up. Why can't we try to learn something from them?

Give the farmers what they need, Minister. They can't steal the land. And you may very well be witnessing the golden age of farming in this country.

- Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenntucker2011@gmail.com.