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'Not true, Roger'

Agro-park farmers deny agriculture minister's claims

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

Wednesday, January 08, 2014    

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Farmers who lost a projected $50 million worth of onions at the Plantain Garden River Agro-park in St Thomas following bad decisions by the Government-run Agro Invest Corporation (AIC), yesterday described Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke's response to the Jamaica Observer's exposé of their plight as not true.

Top of the claims disputed by the farmers is that they were the ones who went ahead and planted the crop without the blessing of the AIC.

Despite a Rural Agricultural Development Authority status report laying the blame squarely at the feet of the AIC for recommending the planting of the onions without a proper irrigation system, Clarke accused the farmers of going ahead with the planting on their own.

According to the farmers, the onion seeds were put in the ground by a machine provided by AIC's management who arranged everything.

"They (AIC) were the ones who told us to go ahead with the planting and it was so well-supervised by them, so much so that a farmer didn't even get a seed to take to his yard to plant, because it was a machine which load the seed and plant it, so all now none of us don't put one seed in the ground," one farmer told the Observer.

The farmers also denied the minister's claim that they were informal occupants of the land prior to the establishment of the agro-park.

When contacted, vice-president of the affected farmers' group Clarence Thompson confirmed that 50 acres of the land was initially sub-leased from a major cane farmer. However, after much petitioning, the Government, he said, made the decision to lease 290 acres of the State-owned land to 60 farmers.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Clarke said the Government pumped $7.5 million into a recovery effort to help the farmers who are now each stuck with a $300,000 loan from the St Thomas Co-operative Credit Union, despite not having recovered a cent from the crop. The loan has an interest rate of six per cent.

"We decided that we are going to get them back on their feet, and we injected $7.5 million to see what we could do to help them. The credit union has been working with them, they have been preparing land, and they have been planting pumpkin," Clarke said.

But the farmers also denied that the credit union has been helping them.

According to the farmers, they have been planting some pumpkin on their own in a bid to try to get back on their feet.

"The farmers are trying to do their own initiative to plant pumpkin, so we don't look like we worthless," one farmer explained.

The farmers said they are losing hope that they will ever benefit from the recovery fund as, although $6 million of this $7.5 million was allegedly disbursed to the credit union since October, they are yet to see any recovery programme in place.

According to Thompson, he asked a representative of the credit union, at a meeting in December, what the plans were for the funds, but was informed that the credit union was not obligated to report to him but to the AIC.

Thompson further explained that the farmers were informed that of the $7.5 million, $1.5 million was used to purchase a rotovator to till the soil. However, that equipment is not yet in the island. The machinery, he said, will also be used at other agro-parks.

But another farmer insisted that this is no recovery programme as the money is still sitting with the credit union.

"They say the pepper, which was the recovery crop, was to have been planted the second week of January, and given that it is a four-month crop and the loan is due to be paid in March, how is that supposed to help us recover?" he said.

According to the farmers, they went ahead and planted peppers after crediting the seeds from a nursery, however, the credit union has since stepped in and paid for the seedlings.

The farmers also said that the credit union bought and sent pesticide for the peppers, however, the disgruntled farmers returned the chemical which was delivered by credit union representatives last Friday as it could have been purchased at a lower price.

"When we checked the rate it was bought for, we realised we could have got an additional 15 gallons," one farmer said.

This, the farmers insisted, is a sign that errors are still being made.

"We want to know what is the role of the credit union. Are they a partner, or a facilitator, or what?" questioned a farmer.

Thompson explained that he has been asking the farmers to hold strain since last year. However, he is no longer able to convince them to do so as the recovery plan which they were hoping would have come on stream from October has not materialised.

"The farmers are saying that they are expected to start repaying the $300,000 loan in March and they have nothing in the ground for them to earn from to service this loan," he said.

But according to Minister Clarke, the credit union provided weekly grocery support to the farmers which, to date, has amounted to some $650,000.

"The credit union, during the Christmas period, and up to now, has helped... because they know that the crop had failed," Clarke said.

But yesterday, the farmers denied this claim, saying that it was a "twisting of the truth".

Thompson explained that an arrangement was made after the credit union turned down proposals to either release the $30,000 the farmers had put up as surety for the loan, or to provide the farmers with a grant of $25,000 to provide for their families over the Christmas period.

Instead, Thompson said the credit union arranged with a wholesale in the parish for each farmer to credit $4,000 worth of groceries each fortnight over a six-week period. He further explained that the plan was for a few acres of callaloo to be sown so it would be ready in time to clear this debt, however, this no longer seems possible.

"The callaloo is not yet in the ground and the three fortnight soon up and the farmers will still be stuck with an additional debt because it was the callaloo money which was to pay this grocery bill," he said, adding that everything the farmers are doing now is structured to earn money to service the loan.

"If they can set up a meeting with us to rectify the wrong we will be willing to try again and move on from this for the betterment of the country, but if not, the farmers are in a revolutionary mode," the farmer said.

"They haven't called a meeting to discuss our concerns, instead they are all over the media... and the farmers are not going to stop until all stakeholders know what sort of arrangement we had with them," he added.

According to the minister, the resuscitation plan for the area includes: Establishment of 40 acres of onions (delayed until Spring planting season); production of 50 acres of pumpkin, with potential revenue of $20 million; 25 acres of hot pepper (15 acres of Scotch bonnet, and 10 acres West Indian Red), with potential revenue of $14.4 million and $18 million, respectively; along with other short-term crops, to enable cash flow for the affected farmers.

Other support provided for the recovery plan involved an onion specialist, a marketing consultant, and an infrastructure engineering consultant, along with farmers' field school, focusing on technology.

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