The Ralph Gonsalves Government has launched an EC$6 million Farmers Support Programme, which it says can help to make this country the breadbasket of the southern Caribbean.
The initiative will allow for loans to farmers at 2 per cent interest, and will also provide fertiliser and tools on credit.
Speaking at the launch on Thursday, Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Caesar, said that this 150-square mile, multi-island country, has 18,000 acres of lands remaining for agriculture.
He further said that farmers are willing and ready to work, but noted that the region has been impacted by global economic crisis, and the removal of preferential treatment for its bananas.
“These factors, coming together, have created a significant deficit in capital available for investment in the farming community and in the agricultural sector.”
Caesar said that the main objective of the facility is to ensure a more resilient agricultural sector.
“The Government is responding to this very critical and this very important need and there has been the formation of the Farmers Support Company,” he said.
The Company, which was established last November, will ensure that the requisite framework is in place so that farmers can receive their credit in the most efficient and efficacious manner,” Caesar said.
He said St. Vincent and the Grenadines is poised to become the breadbasket of the southern Caribbean. “This vision is not only shared by the Ministry of Agriculture, but in 2013 we exported to a sister island over 200 heads of cattle and has that order and other quantity of livestock,” he said.
Caesar said that the amount of agricultural produce exported to Trinidad and Barbados has also increased, and his Ministry wants to build on the foundation established by the Government through the years
“I want to assure the farmers who are listening that this credit facility will be dispensed within the most farmer-friendly environment,” he said, adding that the Government has ensured that the forms are easy to “handle and to deal with”.
He further said that the Ministry of Agriculture was on Thursday launching a national agricultural crusade, and will visit all villages and communities and will work closely with the Ministry of Rural Transformation in this regard.
“We want the farmers to benefits in a timely manner, because time is of the essence,” Caesar said, noting that there has been a significant increase in the price of arrowroot recently, and a request for 60 additional acres of the rhizome to be grown this year.
He further said there has been an increase in the demand for cocoa plants, and the Ministry will ensure that its diversification programme continues this year.
“Brothers and sisters, farmers, I see a great day coming for us in the agricultural sector. The credit facility is one very important step, we have to also ensure that the labour side of it, that we work harder, that we are steadfast, that we are resolute as we move the process forward.”
“I am confident that once we utilise these monies that are being made available to us today that we will be able to see an increase in production and productivity in this country,” Caesar said.
“We have a significant task ahead as we seek to reduce our food import bill. We have a significant challenge ahead as we have to ensure that matters of food security that they are brought under control, we also have to ensure that as we move forward, and as we develop as a nation, and as a people, that we produce more and that we create that environment to reduce poverty in many rural communities,” the Agriculture Minister said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, noted that the Company will lend at lower rates of interest and wants to own real estate, which it can use to leverage these assets.
He said that in addition to lending, the Company wants to be involved with the private sector.
Gonsalves said the Company must provide a range of support and that the Government doesn’t want it to be top heavy with administrative issues, and therefore made the Chief Agricultural Officer its CEO.
He further explained that the EC$6 million is a grant from Petrocaribe.
“The money is almost a grant when you get it at 2 per cent. … I want you to have a lot of breathing space,” he said as he encouraged farmers to repay their loans.
“I don’t want you to feel that if you borrow a $5,000 and you put it in your farm, and when you get your commodities and so on, and you get $15,000 out of what you put in, that the $15,000 belong to you, because $5,000 belong somewhere else. … You have to run your farm as a business,” he said.
“Please, we are in this thing, don’t try and beat the system. I am looking for the money, I am trying to help, but if you try and beat the system, you are beating yourself. … So, I really want us to be honest and straightforward with this exercise,” Gonsalves said.