By Kenton X. Chance
The manager of the arrowroot-processing factory in Owia has declined to comment while the chair of the association could not be reached after repeated attempts by telephone, even as thousands of pounds of rhizomes are rotting outside the factory, throwing a significant number of persons in the community into greater economic turmoil.
iWitness News became aware of the situation on Tuesday when a farmer asked us to visit the North Windward community located 32 miles from Kingstown, the nation’s capital.
When we arrived in the community and inquired about the rotting arrowroot, one young man said that they want fertiliser.
iWitness News pointed out that we are looking at arrowroot that had been harvested and was already rotting. Another young man told us that his friend was speaking in parables.
When we arrived at the factory, located a short distance from the community, the stench of the rotting rhizomes was thick in the air, while other rhizomes which had been reaped and offloaded in the yard had taken root again in the ground and were at an advanced stage of growth.
iWitness News understands that the arrowroot is rotting while the management of the factory tries to repair the machinery there. The machinery uses a combination of water and electricity, and natural ventilation to process the rhizome into the starch that is highly sought after on the international market.
Most of the farmers who iWitness News attempted to speak to on Tuesday declined to comment, expressing fear of reprisal, with some of them saying that the land that they cultivate belongs to the government.
However, one farmer, 73-year-old Ian Williams, who has been farming since he was a child, told iWitness News that he had anticipated since last year that no arrowroot would be reaped this year.
He said that, in recent years, farmers have been paid upfront just half of the value of their crop, which the factory buys for EC$1 per pound.
Williams told iWitness News that when they are paid the remainder, the association describes it as “bonus”.
“… from last year, I said arrowroot is getting worse and worse. I said they are not going to reap arrowroot next year. Watch and see,” Williams told iWitness News in the Vincentian vernacular.
He said he had resolved not to harvest any of his arrowroot this year, but decided to do so after a man brought the requisite paperwork to him.
Williams said he has harvested one of his fields, but since he has not been paid, he will not harvest the other.
“I haven’t got any money up to now,” Williams further said, adding, when asked, that the factory has already ground the arrowroot that he harvested and processed it into starch.
He said the arrowroot that is rotting at the factory was brought there sometime last month from Sandy Bay, a neighbouring community.
The farmer said that the management of the factory have not said anything about the problems they are facing.
Williams blamed the Unity Labour Party administration for the situation, adding that if arrowroot is to suffer the same fate as bananas — which have not been exported to the international market for years, “St. Vincent gone”.
“And we, arrowroot farmers, have to hold faith, ‘til who gets there, everything will come back.”
Williams said that if the arrowroot is not reaped this year, it can be harvested next year, providing that the farmers give it the requisite care.
“If they had paid us the money, I would have dug out the arrowroot field,” he told iWitness, seemingly ignoring the mechanical problems at the factory.
Arrowroot is an important part of the economy and culinary culture of North Windward, where the majority of St. Vincent’s indigenous population lives.
Williams, who turns 74 in August, said that while he also produces charcoal, “I prefer — it’s true — [to] plant the arrowroot for our culture.
“Since I am a young fellow I have been in arrowroot. It’s not today. I know about arrowroot,” he said.
The farmer pointed to a field of the crop growing on a hillside above his house and said when he gets money, he will weed it out and fertilise it.
“Next year, is naked money I making,” he said, echoing optimism that the situation will be resolved by the next harvest season, which begins early in the new year but could start as soon as December for some farmers.
“It will not spoil,” he said, adding that he got 115 baskets, each weighing 100 pounds, from the field, a gross income of EC$11,500.
Another farmer, who asked not to be identified in this story, told iWitness News that the arrowroot “crop hasn’t even gotten off the ground as yet and every minute the factory is breaking down.
“Sometimes, they grind two times a week and sometimes they can’t grind,” she said, adding that a lot of persons planted the crop and reaped it but the factory cannot process it.
She said the problem developed since the processing of the crop began sometime in February or March.
The farmer blamed bad management for the problems, saying that the persons who cleaned the factory in January were only paid on Monday.
She said that some years, she reaps as much as 90 baskets, adding that last season she reaped 60-something baskets.
The woman offered some insights into financing in the arrowroot industry, saying that farmers often get loans from the National Development Foundation (NDF) to pay reapers.
“So that is another problem. Because when they are paying, we don’t get the check in our hands because money has to go to NDF first,” the woman said,
She said she has paid her reapers already, but is yet to repay the NDF.
With the price of arrowroot increasing, more and more persons are interested in working in the industry, where reapers get EC$15 for each basket they harvest.
This leaves the farmer with EC$85 from which they have to deduct the cost of inputs and caring for the plants. She said that a farmer would end up with less than EC$60 out of the EC$100.
The farmer told iWitness News that the money owed to her is very important because she has bills to pay and outstanding debts relating to the crop.
And while she has begun planting a new crop, the woman told iWitness News that money is a problem because she also needs to pay persons to help her with preparation of the field and planting the rhizomes.
She said that arrowroot is the main crop in the community, which is located in the section of the St. Vincent with the highest incidences of poverty.
“That is the main crop in the community because everybody looks forward to make a little penny at the end of the crop, but this time, things are really bad,” the woman said of Owia, where fishing is also a major part of the economy.
She said that the arrowroot association keeps promising that farmers would be paid every Friday.
The woman said that sometimes in the past, if a farmer was supposed to receive EC$6,000, the association would give them EC$3,000 or EC$2,000 and say that the rest will “come like a bonus”
“But our own money is the bonus,” the farmer told iWitness.
At the factory, a worker told iWitness News that the factory “had some breakdowns for a couple weeks since we started grinding the arrowroot.
“If it wasn’t for the breakdown, everything should have finished.”
She said that depending on the problem, it could take two weeks to repair the broken part, adding they normally take the motors to a workshop near Kingstown for repair.
The factory worker told iWitness News that they are experiencing problems with a motor and a shaft.
“So it takes a two weeks for the motor to fix and we got a hold up for another two weeks again for the shaft. So that is the reason why the arrowroot in the yard spoil because we don’t usually have spoiled arrowroot in the yard.”
She said that since the farmers have already brought their arrowroot to the factory, they have to be paid for it, but said this is yet to be done.
“They will get paid this Friday,” she said, adding that the money to pay the farmers will come from the starch that has been processed.
When iWitness News visited the association’s office in Orange Hill, we met factory manager, Cauldric Browne poring over what appeared to be voucher booklets on a desk.
Browne told iWitness News that he was “extremely busy” and could not spare time to respond to our questions.
Told that iWitness News had travelled all the way from Kingstown and asked if he couldn’t spare us a few minutes, Browne said, “I have to get these completed before the day [ends].”
He said iWitness News should contact the chairman of the board of director of the association, Peter Ballantyne, and provided a number at which he said Ballantyne could be reached.
Asked again if he could not spare a few minutes for a comment, Browne told iWitness News, “I wouldn’t want to make a comment,” adding that he wanted to finish the paper work he was doing.
IWitness News has made, over the past two days, several calls to the number that Browne provided for Ballantyne.
All of the calls have gone unanswered.