Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar (File photo).

KINGSTOWN. St. Vincent – The local banana industry might be on life support but it is definitely not dead, according to Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar.

Caesar said earlier this month that a concerted effort by agricultural officials and farmers could see the sector return to “high levels of production” by yearend.

Natural disasters and diseases have significantly affected the industry since 2009, with significant damage by black sigatoka — a leaf spot disease — last year.

The Ministry’s “Operation Cut Back” — aimed at minimalizing the impact of black sigatoka — has resulted in fruits being shipped to the United Kingdom this month — the first time in over eight weeks.

“… if all the farmers who own lands, can go into their fields from today, and start the clean up process, before the end of 2012, the banana industry will have significantly returned to high levels of production,” Caesar said on radio two weeks ago.

“There is definitely a future (for bananas). … Banana is not dead!” he reiterated.

He said the shipment of 1,935 boxes of bananas to the United Kingdom on April 15 was “significant evidence that Operation Cut Back has been a success”.

He, however, noted that the shipment was the first of three trial batches. “What we are doing is that we are testing the quality when they arrive in the U.K.”

In the wake of the diseases and disasters, some farmers did not strictly track the age of the fruits and packaged bananas of different levels of maturity in the same carton.

“We will have three trial shipments where we will come back to the table after every shipment and we will speak about issues of the quality and we will see where we go from there,” Caesar said.

He further stated that agriculture officials were pleased with the quality of fruit after the first shipment and that there was not much mechanical damage — bruising, etc. of fruits.

“We really commend a lot of the famers for really having the kind of courage. I mean, to walk into a banana field after Hurricane Tomas (in October 2010) and to start again and to continue after moko and the presence of the black sigatoka disease, it definitely took a lot of courage and a lot of cooperation and hard work from the government side …

“What I saw in the fields really, really brought a lot of joy to my heart to see the joy on the faces of the farmers who were cutting for the first shipment,” he said, of the harvest earlier this month.

Caesar said a farmer who had not shipped bananas to England since February told him of the impact of loss of income and was expecting to received between EC$800 and EC$1,000 for the 60 boxes of fruit she had harvested.

“And this is something that is going to significantly change the rural economy. The banana industry continues to play a vital role in the development of the rural economy and the development of St. Vincent and the Grenadines …” said Caesar, a lawyer, who often says that he was educated with “banana money”.

He said an “extremely significant” number of fields were affected by black sigatoka, adding that the disease –which affects banana cultivation internationally — might have been unintentionally brought into the country.

“… that is what happens when we try to smuggle things in…” he said, adding that agricultural diseases smuggled into the country destroys the “life blood of the people” through a “devastating impact on the economy”.

As of mid-April, 275 acres of abandoned field were slashed, thereby reducing the level of infestation to 4, with zero representing total elimination of the disease — something experts say is almost impossible.

“So now we are at a stage where we can speak in the language of the banana recapitalisation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Caesar said but added that farmers must still await his ministry’s approval before replanting their fields.

“The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we are 100 per cent behind the fight of black sigatoka,” he said.

No farms in downtown Kingstown

But while Caesar thanked his staff, he said the workforce in Kingstown will be reduced to “a bare bones”.

“The workers at the Ministry, we have to work closer with the farmers,” said Caesar, who has donned rubber boots and used machete to help farmer fell affected plants.

“As I usually jest tongue in cheek from time to time, there is no large farm on Backstreet or Middle Street (in capital city Kingstown).

“There is no major farm there in Richmond Hill where we are but there are three headquarters: one in Wlliabou, one in Mesopotamia, and one in New Grounds,” he said.

He further said that he wants to enhance the staffing at these headquarters so that agricultural officials can work along with farmers “day by day”.

Caesar said the agricultural sector is the backbone of this country and, as minister, pledged “my full allegiance to continue to work with the farmers of this country”, adding some of his staff “will be showing little resistance”.

Read also: ‘Banana on death row!’ – Opposition leader

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