Features

The Case for Agriculture

Image of Francis Leonce

THE above was the heading of the editorial of the Weekend VOICE of June 25. This followed recent national elections in which the UWP received a mandate to move forward with its plans for economic and social development. The editorial noted that the UWP manifesto suggested that the party believes that agriculture is a fundamental instrument in St. Lucia’s quest for sustainable development particularly in rural areas and the general economy.

In apparent concurrence with this view the editorial went on to state “while we concede that the glory days of bananas that we knew in the 1980’s and early 1990’s are over , there are still opportunities for banana exports at this time that are going abegging”.

This sentiment may have been influenced in part by Mr. Michael Chastanet’s television show days following the election which reported that certain banana business persons from Martinique were interested in procuring bananas from St. Lucia to form part of their export supply.

The importance of sustaining a focus role for banana export to the UK as part of the commercial agricultural development efforts of St. Lucia was outlined in a Feature article on Agriculture in the weekend VOICE of ( June 13,2015 ) written by me. The objective was to become more competitive with exported bananas and to make the point that fruit quality was the sine qua non of this effort. This would call for identifying and facilitating some core producers who have the required land resource and could mobilize the other resources required to achieve the competitive dictates. This in effect would limit participation to a selective group of farmers and mitigate the problems which were associated with the uncompetitive industry during the existence of the preferential market.

LOOKING GOOD
I was aware that this approach conformed with Winfresh’s plans of operations.. I have observed since then that there are a number of mid-sized farms in banana production with fields looking as good in their husbandry as with the best in the heyday of the banana industry. We are also informed that the Black Sigatoka disease is currently under control, thanks to Taiwanese assistance.

On the weekend following the VOICE editorial in question ( 2 July,2016) an article was published in the same paper with heading “New Push by Winfresh”.The article outlined that Winfresh has faced and continues to face enormous challenges since the liberalization of the banana market and the dismantling of the preferential arrangements which Windward Islands bananas previously enjoyed on the market. Since then the situation has become “more challenging with unrelenting downward pressure on prices ,supply disruption caused by adverse weather conditions and the advent of Black sigatoka disease compounded by the lack of consistency of product quality.”

The Chairman of Winfresh, Mr.SimonStiel is quoted in that article as stating that he believes there is still a place in the UK market for good quality Caribbean bananas but there is competitive pressure in prices with supplies emanating from Latin America and West Africa. The foregoing effectively informs that there is still a serious challenge with marketing of Windwards bananas. The situation on the UK market has probably contributed to the enthusiasm being manifested by some for exploring the alleged opportunity of exporting bananas in collaboration with Martinique parties. A prognosis of the potential outcome of such a collaboration follows:

Banana professionals and practitioners in St. Lucia have for many years been acquainted with the manner and standards of operations of the Martinique banana industry. A formal insight to this was incorporated in the final report of The St. Lucia Banana Industry Task Force which was submitted to Government in June 2001. The Task Force was headed by Mr. George Theophilus and worked through several Committees. I was Chairman of the subcommittee with other members, Julius Polius and Cuthbert Joseph ( both still active agricultural professionals) who visited Martinique to obtain some in depth picture of the circumstances through which the smaller farms participate in the banana export market. During that visit we were hosted and addressed by high profile representatives of the various segments of the Martinique banana industry. Our findings form part of the Annex of the Task Force report under Summary of Stakeholder Consultations. Some relevant comments are extracted and presented as follows:

Bananas

SERVICED
The farmer is fully serviced by SICABAM in all aspects of the operations. He enjoys a dedicated extension service with frequent visits from an agronomist —-

SICABAM makes bulk purchases , stores and distributes to the farmers all inputs and tools required for banana cultivation——

A Research Institution CIRAD / FHLOR is associated with production. The philosophy is to promote an integrated/rational programme to manage soil fertility/productivity—

Consideration is always given to soil testing, soil preparation, irrigation, drainage and using healthy planting material.

Leaf Spot control involved use of four helicopters and two fixed winged aircrafts—-. SICA TG was the company responsible for implementing Sigatoka control programme. Nevertheless the farmer is ultimately responsible for controlling leaf spot on his farm.

SICABAM fruit is exported to: UK(15-20%), France 60% , Portugal 10-15%, Spain and Italy (0=15%). Fruit is shipped in 40foot and 20 foot containers. Containers come into Martinique full of cargo but returning capacity is only 70% full with bananas.

At the end of that visit the St. Lucia Delegation, SICABAM and CIRAD- FLHOR representatives were of the view that collaboration with the producers in Martinique could be beneficial to St. Lucia.

Since the visit (in 2001) the banana industry of St. Lucia has progressively declined and exports now represent single digit percentage of the levels obtained then. Services from associated organizations /institutions have suffered parallel decline and in some cases the institutions have disappeared altogether such as is the case with the historical Banana Association building formerly on Manoelstreet. Additionally, Winban R&D is no longer functional as such. Most of the technical practitioners of the St Lucia and Windward islands banana industry have dispersed to other life ( or after life) activities. The opportunity for acting on the conclusion of the delegation when there was still some service infrastructure in the industry has been missed.

Any needed expansion of banana production for marketing at the competitive standard required for Europe, whether through Winfresh or Martinique entities requires upgrade in technology with associated investments. Mr.Peter Serieux, Chairman of Tropical Quality Fruit Co. (TQFC), attempted to make that point during the discussions on the alleged Martinique export opportunity during the Michael Chastanet Television Show .The question arises as to how would this come about in the absence of the banana service organizations alluded to above. Most people were aware of the role of the SLBGA in the banana industry but there may not have been as great an appreciation of the level of interaction among the several organizations and institutions and the SLBGA which supported the farmers to realise the agricultural glory of the 80’s to early 90’s.

This matter was outlined in summary format in my article Agricultral Glory Days. The collaboration among the institutions, SLBGA, Winban, GeestIndustries , private sector input providers and the indigenous banks was a significant contributor to the banana success story. The interplay among all the institutions was encouraged and facilitated by government through the office of the Prime Pinister, the Ministry of Agriculture and other ministries such as the Ministry of Works (roads). Moreover through the aegis of government policy, statutory bodies such as NDC ( SLMF and Dennery Farm Co )and SLDB were actively involved in the production developments. Most importantly, there cannot be a return to the multiplicity of small farms, many on unsuitable lands, using field packing as was the case then. Enthusiasm for any expansion of banana production should be tempered by realities of the existing situation.

As explained in my earlier articles, the potential for exporting bananas of competitive marketing standards is limited to farms on flat to gently sloping lands of no less than the 5 acre size that still exists at St. Lucia Model Farms with mid sized farms representing the focal point of production as they could be better placed to provide for initiation and development of technology. Any prospective Martinique producer/exporter would need to develop its own supply network or assuming that it is preferred that production be maintained in the hands of local farmers , some arrangements with existing shipping groups such TQFC may be considered as it is assumed that Winfresh would be maintaining its own supply network. It would be problematic to have an open situation where export distribution is simply left to the weekly or periodic exigencies of competitive pricing by the marketers. There would be serious challenges as the mode of fruit selection, packaging and preparation for shipping will be very different for the different marketing channels.

There is the other possibility that the Martinique promoters may be intending to control their own farm production. This raises a whole range of questions regarding control and ownership of suitable farm lands, regulations, labour organization, nature of administration, technical services and how these would impact on farmers supplying the traditional market. Also the French producers may be expected to export some fruit through Winfresh.

Whatever the direction of the banana developments, government and the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, must administer a regulatory and facilitating environment not only to harmonize the production situation but also to give due considerations to the potential for crops diversification and to conform with the soil and water conservation mandates covered in the climate change agreement. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to lead and primarily as instigator, regulator and facilitator. As much as possible actual commercial operations should be left to the private sector as has been emphasized in the earlier articles. Existing Farmer organisations such as TQFC and The St. Lucia Agricultural Association could play key roles in initiating and implementing the developments. The Agricultural Association under Chairmanship of Mr. Cuthbert Phillips attempted to establish some working relationships with some relevant agricultural business entities in Martinique up to a few years ago. Government and marketers need to support the technology upgrades in ways best suited to their roles.

POSSIBILITIES
The VOICE editorial which instigated this follow up article also made reference to alleged possibilities of Martinique initiatives in pineapple production. This again has relevance to past opportunities. In the late 80’s, through a Geest Industries initiative and in collaboration with NDC, several thousand plants of pineapple were sourced from a Martinique supplier for production at DenneryFarmco. A few other large farms in St. Lucia subsequently got involved in this venture. Production was generally successful but the various pineapple ventures floundered through the lack of technical and marketing services. For purpose of general interest, Pancho deCaires , the Green Movement activist, began his agrologist engagement in St. Lucia in the pineapple venture.

The foregoing discussions should impress upon all concerned that stating agricultural intentions or plans in the media or in manifestos need to be followed by credible actions for implementation. Foremost among these is strategic planning to include contribution by prospective private sector stakeholders such as the farmers who are the ones most likely to generate passion for the proposal. The planning for implementation should also define the organizational structure (s) and resources required such as, physical plants, services and finance.

The Ministry of Agriculture should mobilize the assistance of CARDI. IICA and external agencies as is appropriate to establish operating and servicing structures. This may include the Taiwanese as has successfully been done to date with Black Sigatoka control and French assistance as may seem to be appropriate with any Martinique related agricultural initiative. In the context of bananas and products intended for the UK market, Winfresh should be maintained in focus as the marketing channel as it is a Windward Islands owned business which has survived over 20 years in turbulent banana market circumstances.

NOT SATISFIED
Evidently Winfresh is not satisfied with the consistency of the quality supplied by the Windward producers. The suppliers are themselves not generally happy with the shipping opportunities provided and the returns from the market. Some change is required. Perhaps a regional approach to marketing administration may be the best way to address the opportunities and challenges in agricultural export. This change could begin with the Island Governments providing a mandate for the OECS to administer the Windward Islands ownership of Winfresh. Some political association has already been initiated between the OECS and Martinique. This should allow for a framework for transfer of agricultural technology from Martinique to improve on the productivity and quality of exported products of mutual interest, be it bananas, pineapple or whatever.

Historically, WIBDECO, the predecessor company of Winfresh was created through the office of the OECS secretariat, at a meeting chaired by deceased Dr. Bernard Yankey. The main purpose was to place the Windward Islands on the market place in their own right. The change to OECS administration would allow for the harmonization of the Islands’ government policies for agricultural marketing and for business developments by Winfresh , as the latter appears to be left to that company’s discretion. The OECS administration would also provide a framework for deciding on the eventual successor of Mr. Bernard Cornibert after years of service ensuring the survival of Wibdeco/ Winfresh as a bona fide UK importer.

It is the view of this writer that an OECS Desk should be created for these functions. The OECS should recruit for this post a person with appropriate agricultural qualifications; agricultural production experience in the Windwards; a good record of interfacing with farmers and entities of agricultural production; knowledge of the international market place and trade issues and most of all demonstrative passion for agricultural developments in the Windward Islands.

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