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We need a farmers emergency fund

Raulston
Nembhard

Thursday, September 05, 2019

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A recent ush fire in the Flagaman district of St Elizabeth turned into an inferno which destroyed crops and farm holdings of relatively small farmers in the area. The initial estimate of damage done was put at over $45 million, but more realistic estimates put the loss at well over $100 million. The farmers are now in a quandary, as much of the crops were ready for reaping and farming equipment was destroyed in the fire.

Whatever the final figure the farmers have suffered a great loss. Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, with responsibility for agriculture, J C Hutchinson, and junior minister Floyd Green, from the same ministry, commiserated with the farmers and pledged a paltry $1.5 million between them from their constituency development funds. I understand the gesture, but it betrays the lack of robust support for small and medium-size farmers who are often faced with such disasters. Also, it demonstrates the lack of readiness and preparedness on the part of the Government to help farmers in distress when disaster strikes.

To the best of my knowledge there is no robust, rapid response mechanism in place to help farmers who find themselves in this kind of emergency. If there is, I would be happy to be informed.

What we have seen in the past is a knee-jerk reaction to problems as they arise in the farming community. If a hurricane hits, and crops are destroyed, the Government responds by assessing the damage and then — often through laborious bureaucratic processes — allocate certain sums to mitigate the loss. This is not done in a timely manner, and by the time the funds are available for allocation the interest of the farmers has waned as they might have missed critical replanting or restoration phases. The crucial window when they really needed the funds is missed and it may now take more than the Government calculated to be of any real help to them.

Farming is a very fickle business which cannot await the good intentions of gyrating political intent. So, my suggestion to the Government is to create a Farmers Emergency Fund (FEF) specially geared to assist small farmers. I say small farmers because big farmers will always have access to resources that the small ones do not. Because of the scale of their operations they have greater resilience and can absorb greater shocks than their smaller counterparts. One is not saying that they must not be considered in the case of great catastrophes that would necessitate some help as in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, import relief, or any other such help. But their ability to bounce back far exceeds the small, fledgling farmer where one disaster can be permanent ruination of their livelihood.

This emergency fund would be part of the annual budget for the ministry of agriculture. The emergency nature of the fund should be well-defined, so it can meet the purpose for which it is intended and so ensure that it is not emasculated by other demands of the ministry. The technical officers in the ministry, in collaboration with the Rural Agricultural Development Agency (RADA), can do the maths and determine an appropriate sum and what the mechanism of response would be. To receive help, farmers would have to be registered and active.

As I am on the issue of agriculture, there has been much talk about the contributions that agriculture can make to the growth towards prosperity. The latest Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) report has shown a decrease in agricultural output due mainly to sustained drought that the island has been experiencing. But drought of itself does not tell the full picture. Part of the problem is that we have not embarked on a robust agro-processing and manufacturing thrust that can truly add value to the agricultural sector.

The legendary businessman Gary “Butch” Hendricksen has lamented the anaemic growth of the value-added aspect of agriculture, citing what could be achieved by processing mangoes that go to waste in St Elizabeth. He concluded in a recent conversation with the Jamaica Observer, that the country does not have the DNA for manufacturing. But I would submit that it is not that the DNA is not there, but the will to remove the obstacles to production is lacking. There is the absence of proper financial support for manufacturing especially in the agro-processing sector. Furthermore, there is still too much bureaucracy and its attendant lethargy which retards any robust activity in this sector. People are rearing to go, but they lack the support from the Government and the banks.

The Minister of Agriculture Audley Shaw is seized of the urgency of this. In speech after speech he crusades for the need to create value-added strength in the sector. But even he must lament that, despite his best efforts, his encouragement of the sector does not seem to be working out as he wished. There is need for a serious rethink of what is being done so that agriculture can make the optimum contribution it can and must to gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.


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