Less than five truckloads of arrowroot rhizomes rotted in the factory yard in Owia, Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar says.
His claims seem to contradict what iWitness News saw when we visited the facility last month, at the invitation of a farmer and saw large heaps of the rhizomes, some decaying and others at advanced stages of re-growth, lying in the factory yard.
A large amount of rhizomes had also been dumped over an embankment as the rhizomes, which when processed retail locally for EC$16 a pound, continued to rot amidst a mechanical failure at the factory, the oldest of its type in the country.
The management of the arrowroot industry declined to comment for our article amidst complaints by farmers about the impact that non-payment over weeks was having on their personal finances and on the economy of the community, located in one of the poorest districts of the country.
But the agriculture minister announced in a Facebook post on Friday that his government had paid out that day EC$1 million to arrowroot farmers for their rhizomes.
He further said that the country had sold the previous week, 30,000 pounds of arrowroot starch valued at over EC$500,000.
Asked on Monday about the payment to farmers, Caesar told iWitness News that the period started between February and March and the payment was made on Friday.
He said that there had been an order for 30,000 pounds of arrowroot starch from the United States at US$7-plus a pound and the government had been waiting for that payment.
Asked what caused so much of the rhizomes to rot at the factory, the minister appeared to be downplaying the extent of the loss.
He told iWitness News that when arrowroot is taken to the factory, there is a grading process, which involves a lot of sorting.
“So that farmers who bring arrowroot with a lot of sand and stone and foreign matter that arrowroot is taken and placed one place. In it there is something called the bits, which is small pieces of arrowroot.
“And because the grinding process was very long, you had some of the arrowroot bits which were in the foreign matter spoiling and you had some growing.
“Also, when it came to the end of the grinding, there was a mechanical problem and there were a few truckloads — under three truckloads of arrowroot — which remained there and the board made a decision that they would redistribute those to farmers who wanted to expand their cultivation…”
The minister said that there is a term in arrowroot cultivation called “supplying”, a process in which farmers replant patches in their field where the arrowroot plants did not grow.
“… so they could take those and go to supply, meaning to plant into those areas,” he said of the “bits”, which he claimed was growing at the factory.
The minister told iWitness News that the arrowroot that rotted was “not at all a significant part of this year’s harvest”.
He noted that in 2013, when the price per pound for rhizomes began to move from 50 cents to $1 per pound, persons used to pay workers to go into the factory yard to pick up the bits to supply their fields.
“But because the expansion has taken place consistently over the last three or four years and the reaping period was slightly pushed back, a lot of persons did not bother going up there.”
Caesar, however, said that there isn’t any rhizomes at the factory now because four or five farmers have used them to supply their fields, and National Properties Ltd., a state-owned company, has “a bit by them that farmers can go”.
Caesar said that someone outside of the industry, just seeing the arrowroot there, “may have come to a certain conclusion”.
But the minister’s explanation did not mesh with what farmers told iWitness News when we visited the area last month.
Farmers said that the arrowroot that was rotting or growing in the yard could have been processed but for the mechanical failure.
Caesar consented on this point, telling iWitness News, “The arrowroot which was there would have been able to be processed. It was, as I said, under three truckloads of arrowroot.
“When you consider the number of truckloads of arrowroot that was processed, that was de minimis. The value of it, … $12,000 worth of rhizomes was distributed to farmers coming out of the yard, when you juxtapose that against the 1.60 million dollars which was paid.”
The minister maintained that what iWitness News saw at the factory was “a lot of the arrowroot which was graded out and a few truckloads — less than five truckloads — which was there and because of the mechanical breakdown of the factory at the end of the grinding process”.
Caesar said that one of the earlier setbacks was that his ministry had to expand the drying houses.
He said that because of the attractive price for the rhizomes, a lot of people went back into arrowroot, so much so that the traditional markets could not absorb the quantities that are being produced.
He said that is why there is now 100,000 pounds of starch at the factory.
“When production was about 40,000 per year, a lot of people switched to a lot of the other starches. And I am happy that that movie, the Eddie Murphy movie with Mr. Church, they did a nice little ad there and what we are trying to do now is to break into new markets.”
He said a lot of persons who used to use arrowroot starch when they were young are now dead.
“Arrowroot starch is not something that you grow up on or I grow up on. What I want help from you to do is to have a take up locally of more arrowroot starch. It is expensive; it is $16 per pound. So, if we can do some public relations to ask persons to buy more local arrowroot starch, it will really do good for us.”
The ministry said the problem at the factory has been resolved and steps have been taken to mitigate against it recurring again.
“Definitely. We are going to take our engineers in. We are just waiting to get our payments and everything out of the way. The CDB has a project that I will mention [in Parliament] tomorrow (today) about retrofitting and rebuilding the factory.
“The factory is old. When you look around St. Vincent, there is no other standing functioning factory [of that type]. That is the last one. So it is really a lot of work that we have to put into it,” Caesar told iWitness News.