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Farmers warn AIC not to give their money to credit union

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

Monday, February 17, 2014    

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FARMERS at the Plantain Garden River Agro-park in St Thomas say they intend to hold the management of Agro Invest Corporation (AIC) to its agreement that all proceeds from the soon-to-be-reaped ginger will be paid to them and not to the St Thomas Credit Union to service the loan for a crop of onions which was wiped out.

More than 40 farmers were stuck with a $300,000 loan from the credit union after poor management by the state-run AIC resulted in the farmers losing an estimated $50 million worth of onions, late last year.

Following the loss, the farmers have been toiling to plant other crops in a bid to earn something to feed their families and clear their debt.

However, recent rumours that the credit union intends to recover some of the loan from this ginger crop is worrying news for the men and women who are yet to take home a single cent from months of hard labour.

"All we made from the onion crop was a mere $800,000 and we did not even see a dollar of that money in our pocket because the cheque had to go directly to the credit union for interest on a loan which is yet to benefit us, and now we are hearing that they may try to recover some more of the loan from the only little money we would get from our labour in so many months," one farmer said.

Added to that the farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that their first obligation will be to Ginger House, which funded the planting of the ginger.

"Whatever money we make from this ginger we will first have to pay $42,000 each to Ginger House, so it is not like we will be getting a lot of money into our pockets," he said.

Chief executive officer of AIC Everton Spencer is, however, assuring the farmers that the earnings from the 10 acres of ginger will go directly to them.

The projection, he said, is for the farmers to reap between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds of ginger per acre.

"The export division of the Ministry of Agriculture will be buying the ginger at $50 per pound and so if all goes well there should be some $6 million to $7.5 million," Spencer said.

He said too, that the farmers will be getting assistance with onion seeds and a drip irrigation system for them to be able to replant the crop by this March into April.

The farmers' plight was first highlighted in a January 6, 2014 Jamaica Observer article. The newspaper reported a status investigative report compiled by the Rural Agricultural Development Agency (RADA) that confirmed the farmers' claims that they were misled by AIC, which failed to provide the irrigation system in a timely manner despite $100,000 of the $300,000 loan being allocated for it.

Following weeks of claims and counter claims the AIC sought to better regulate the project to ensure that best practices are being followed.

For this, the farmers say they are grateful as it is now evident that AIC is doing its best to ensure the mistake is never repeated.

Meanwhile, member of parliament for East St Thomas Dr Fenton Ferguson said he will be providing the farmers with some small tools and other farming supplies as part of helping them to recover from the loss.

"It appears from the evidence that some issues arose which plunged the project to a great extent and has led to significant loss for the farmers," he told the Observer last week.

"It is something that you would be sympathetic about; something that I could cry about but I have also said to the minister (of agriculture) deal with some of the issues because it is not that people didn't see that some of the practices were not best practices. Persons came to me and I went and reported that the irrigation system was not at its best," he said.

Ferguson said he empathised with the farmers, given that they had previously suffered loss at the hands of an exporter who scammed them out of millions of dollars worth of goods only months before the onion crop was lost.

"What we have to do now is not just about persons coming to talk; it is what we are able to bring to the table working with those farmers because they are committed farmers and they had a major loss initially with someone who robbed them so it has been a very unfortunate experience for them," he said.

Noting that the agro-parks are too big to fail, Ferguson said the Government will be doing all to ensure that the past errors are not repeated.

"When I get back from an overseas engagement I will be visiting with them because I think the communication is important because you don't want to have any time lapse where they (the farmers) are not knowing because that creates some more anxiety," the MP said.

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