KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Despite incentives given to farmers by his Unity Labour Party, “immense challenges remain to lift a diversified agricultural sector,” Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said last week.
Gonsalves, in his Budget Address, listed among the “more important constraints” to diversified agriculture lack of cheap credit, praedial larceny, and the unavailability of adequate and productive labour.
He also said the sector was affected by unreliable markets and competitiveness in product quality and price, transportation difficulties by sea and air across the region and internationally, the poor condition of many feeder roads, and poor farm management.
Gonsalves said that his government has been paying attention to these challenges and “most farmers are trying their best to uplift their production, quality, and competitiveness”.
He, however, said that the unavailability of a sufficiency of adequately productive labour on farms is “an intractable problem of which we must speak honestly”.
Unless all stakeholders in agriculture “find ways to at least significantly resolve this conundrum on a timely basis, farms which require more than minimal family labour are not likely to be productive and competitive for the market,” Gonsalves said.
Small-scale, labour intensive agriculture find it difficult to attract labour at the offered wage rate in an economy, which is increasingly service-based, Gonsalves said.
He further said that status issues militate against agricultural field labour in societies that have only recently exited plantation agriculture and formal colonialism.
“Simply put, many persons, especially those in the age group between 20 and 35 years, bluntly refuse to do agricultural work,” he said.
Most of these persons, Gonsalves told Parliament, prefer to await on part-time or seasonal intermittent work in the services sector or to be employed by government.
“On this bundle of issues, it serves no useful purpose to bemoan the subjective or objective factors which give rise to this ―labour challenge
“At the end of the day, a reasonably profitable farm will offer competitive wages; attitudes to farm labour must change; agricultural training for young persons and the availability of lands for them to work for themselves must be expanded; and the cultivation of crops with greater value and less labour intensity must be encouraged,” Gonsalves said.
“I have deliberately not addressed the lure for some whose preference is for a more rewarding, but high risk activity of cultivating marijuana. This, too, has to be continually tackled through a complex of ways, including a focussed programme of sustainable, alternative livelihoods and initiatives in the realm of national security,” added Gonsalves, who is Minister of National Security and Legal Affairs.
This year, the recurrent budget for Agriculture, excluding Forestry, Fisheries and the Soufriere Monitoring Unit is EC$14.4 million.
Agriculture last year declined by 15.2 per cent primarily due to the fall-out from Hurricane Tomas in October 2010, the April 2011 storm, and the black sigatoka disease, Gonsalves said.
The data for non-banana agriculture indicate a decline of 16.8 per cent and the production of fish declined by 3 per cent.
The performance in other economic sectors also registered negative growth: transportation by 1.1 per cent and financial intermediation by 2.1 per cent.