BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
SAVANNA-LA-MAR, Westmoreland - BUOYED by improved sugar prices, cane farmers in Westmoreland and Hanover have embarked on a massive drive to get idle lands suitable for sugar cane cultivation.
"Farmers are calling me everyday asking where can they get land to plant cane. There is a mad rush for cane lands," said Aston Ruddock, an executive member of the Westmoreland/Hanover Sugar Cane Growers Association.
And he is no exception.
"I have about 140 acres in cane in the Negril Spots area and I am trying to prepare more land to do some more planting," revealed Ruddock, who is also secretary of the Westmoreland/Hanover Cane Farmers Association.
Last year, cane farmers received a whopping increase in the price for their cane sold to the sugar processing plants. The price paid for their crop moved from roughly $3,000 per tonne to an average of $5,000 per tonne.
The increase, according to Chairman of the Westmoreland/Hanover Sugar Cane Growers Association Cleveland Keddo has prompted a renewed interest in sugar cane cultivation.
"Since the start of this year, cane farmers have put more than 3,000 acres of land back into sugar cane," he said at a press conference held last week in Savanna-la-Mar to update the nation on the state of the sector in Westmoreland and Hanover.
Last crop, the more than 1,200 cane farmers, who are members of his association, sold more that 183,000 tonnes of cane to the Frome Sugar Factory.
Keddo is confident that come next crop, farmers will increase production by at least 9,000 tonnes. He noted that his organisation has embarked on a raft of initiatives to help make that happen, while further boosting production.
"Our plan over the next five years is to increase cane production up to about 350,000 tonnes annually — back to where it was in the late 1980s and 1990s," said Keddo.
Over the years, the sugar sector has played a significant role in the economic development of Hanover and Westmoreland. It is estimated that during the cropping season, Frome Sugar Factory — the island's largest sugar-processing plant — contributes roughly $150 million monthly to the economy of the two parishes.
Several business operators in Westmoreland have long maintained that more than 70 per cent of their sales receipts flow from persons employed in the sector.
However, many of these businesses have been experiencing dwindling sales in recent years due to a decline in cane production.
Keddo has attributed the decline in production to low cane prices, high imput costs, disease, and poor farming practices. These factors, he said, have forced many farmers to abandon the crop.
"There is also the problem of the illicit burning of cane that has been impacting negatively on the sector," he said.
According to Keddo, the mandate of his association is to foster and develop programmes for the farmers to enable them to better manage their farms to increase production.
"What we have found is that we have two dying parishes (Hanover and Westmoreland) in terms of cane production. Every year, production declines more and it can't continue; we have to do something about it," he emphasised.
Keddo said the initiatives being taken by his association to boost cane production include:
* the introduction of new varieties of cane;
* a fertiliser programme for farmers;
* the purchase of equipment for planting and harvesting; and
* lobbying Government to improve cane roads.
He noted that the group also plans to embark on an education programme designed to reduce the number of illicit cane fires.
At the same time, Keddo told reporters that the Chinese company, Pan Caribbean Sugar — operators of the Frome Sugar Factory — has also been involved in a massive sugar cane replanting programme. He said that over the past year, the company has planted more than 4,000 acres of the crop.
Just over a year ago, the Government, as part of its sugar divestment programme, sold the Chinese company the Frome assets.