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$1B for agro parks

Minister vows to ensure success of projects

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 16, 2014    

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MORE than $1 billion in grant funding has been earmarked for investment in the island's agro parks it was revealed in an exclusive interview with the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

At the same time, Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke, who has come under pressure from farmers following losses at a St Thomas agro park, has vowed that all will be done to ensure the success of the

projects, given their importance to Jamaica's growth strategy.

"... The agro parks constitute a critical plank of the growth strategy and it is a commitment from the Ministry of Agriculture to play that role, and we have actually signed off on this in the IMF (International Monetary Fund) conditionality," Clarke told the Jamaica Observer.

The minister and a team, which included representatives from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); Agro Invest Corporation (AIC), the managing agency of the island's agro parks; and other ministry officials were responding to a recent Observer article which highlighted the concerns of farmers at the Plantain Garden River (PGR) Agro Park in St Thomas.

The farmers, who are left owing the St Thomas Co-operative Credit Union loans of $300,000 each despite having lost their onion crop, blamed the failure of their crops on AIC not ensuring the irrigation system was installed in a timely manner, while the state-agency argued that they were playing catch-up with the farmers who went ahead in preparing the land before the irrigation system was in place.

"Every (IMF) review that is being done looks specifically at what we are achieving in these agro parks, and that is why, for me, it is so sensitive," Clarke told the Observer during the meeting at his Old Hope Road offices in St Andrew, yesterday.

He, however, noted that some lessons were learned from the failure of the onion crop at PGR, and these mistakes will never be repeated, and that the original agro-park concept will now be adhered to at this facility.

"We are in this, and we will have to work to straighten this one out, but there is nothing at all that is going to derail this programme because we are committed to it and this agro park programme is going to continue to be the flagship until we achieve what we want to achieve in the agricultural sector," the minister insisted.

He added: "This is one area that we see great potential, and it has to succeed, and it must succeed; failure is not an option as far as the agro parks go."

Permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry Donovan Stanberry said the European Union will be investing more than $400 million and the IDB $540 million to put critical infrastructure in place at some of the agro parks. "By the end of the financial year we would have had significant infrastructure in place," he said.

Stanberry, at the same time, explained that the agro park model is a tripartite one. The Government's responsibility, he said, is to identify lands in its portfolio and put in place requisite infrastructure to ensure consistent production and to assist with marketing, while the farmers are responsible for investing in the production.

Meanwhile, chief executive officer of AIC, Everton Spencer said the affected PGR farmers have since been included in the St Thomas Task Force, which will meet today to discuss a crop production schedule going forward.

"What we have prepared for them is an implementation plan, and out of that plan we will indicate the crops that are to be grown, timeline and all the inputs required, including theirs. And once they sign off on that we can move forward," Spencer said.

Spencer said a request made by the farmers to be granted $28,000 each in labour cost as part of the recovery plan was also being examined. The PGR farmers, he said, are expected to benefit from an accumulative $5 million worth of ginger, now in the ground, and this will also help in assisting them to get back on their feet.

Despite the loss suffered by the farmers, Spencer said they will still benefit in the long term from some $78 million worth of infrastructural work done at the facility. This, he said, included construction of farm access road, drainage works, irrigation, and sanitary and packaging facilities.

Although the Government disbursed $7.5 million to the St Thomas Credit Union since October, to assist with a recovery programme following the farmers' loss, Spencer said the overall cost of the recovery plan is closer to $20 million, given the other capital costs associated with the recovery efforts.

"We purchased a new diesel pump, which is currently being cleared off the wharf, to assist with irrigation. We have also purchased a rotovator for $1.5 million, and we needed to irrigate the 60 acres that will be used to plant the next crop of onions in the spring," he said.

In the meantime, the permanent secretary said the remainder of the recovery money is reserved for the 60 acres to replant onions. "When the farmers say the recovery money is not being spent, the bulk of that money is intended to put them back in onion on the new 60 acres with all the lessons we have learnt," he said, adding that some $2.2 million has already been expended.

He pointed out that the recovery assistance funds were disbursed to the credit union from October and this should have given the farmers adequate time to plant cash crops which would have been ready in time for them to begin honouring their loan obligations in March.

"We had gone out there and negotiated secure markets for pumpkin, pepper, callaloo, escallion, and other crops which would have been grown within the time... I don't know where we went off track," he said. "They must now sit with us and put the things in the ground so we can move on," he added.

Meanwhile, IDB Country Representative Therese Turner-Jones said the IDB's involvement in the sector is to improve the capacity of farmers and to empower them to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs.

"The whole thrust of agriculture and IDB's involvement in that sector is to make Jamaica less dependent on imports, to reduce foreign exchange that has to be allocated to buying food from abroad," she said, adding that in order for this economy to grow there must be competitiveness across all sectors.

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