by Eulana Weekes
St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN): The farming community in St. Kitts is under significant pressure as it continues to grapple with the challenges of climate change, lack of funding, resources and labour and competition from external markets.
On the Wednesday, July 05 edition of Farm Report on Island Tea, Farmer Troy Flanders said the farming community and the Farmers Consortium “are going to get militant” because agriculture officials and, by extension, the Government seem not to be hearing the voice of the farmers.
“I think one of the big issues that this Administration has is to deal with the voice of the farmers. They seem to have a serious problem with that. We have had meetings, and the meetings are there, and for some reason, the Consortium lay low because we are allowing [them] the time for [them] to do what [they] have to do, but by laying low, it seems as if they’re taking advantage of us laying low. So, I am saying we tried diplomacy, and we’re giving it another short time, not no far distance, but I am putting the nation on notice that we, as the farming community and the Consortium, are going to get militant.”
Flanders added, “We in the consortium have reached a point [where] we are thinking about taking things on the other level. We don’t want to do certain things, but sometimes, in order for people to take you seriously, you have to go to the other level; and I am putting the media on notice, “Please help us to get our message across.” We have to draw people’s attention to the plight of the farming community.”
The farmer said, despite meeting engagements with agriculture officials, the farming community has yet to be briefed about a plan that agriculture officials said would be rolled out in July 2023.
“They are saying that they have this big plan ready to roll out in July, and everybody, including the farming community, are waiting to know what this big plan has in. We haven’t had a clue. “If when you roll out this big plan, you realise that there is a large section missing, how will you correct that?”
The consortium is an established body of approximately 100 farmers with an executive who can have more bargaining power and can communicate with the Ministry of Agriculture.
The market share has decreased significantly over the past five to six years, and Flanders is unconfident that the agriculture sector in St. Kitts will survive past the next two years. He called for a partnership between the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture to help farmers out of their predicament.
“The fact that our market share has decreased drastically, there is nothing in place to say, “Let us do trade then.” I mean, you can take a stone and throw it across to St. Maarten from St. Kitts, but yet, we cannot move any produce in there. We need the Ministry of Trade and Agriculture working together. Let us see what we can do for the betterment of the farming community.”
During the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Dominican vessel was unable to bring produce to the shores of St.Kitts and Nevis. Flanders said the local farming community managed to get a spike in sales during that period. However, upon the return of the Dominican boat, the situation for the local farmers went right back to normal.
A major issue in the farming community is a shortage of labour, said Flanders. Though the Government made efforts to subsidise labour for the farmers, that in and of itself proved to be unbeneficial.
“We have a serious problem with labour, you know. There’s a serious problem with labour. Though the Government subsidised the labour force in St. Kitts for the farmers, we have a serious problem; because those STEP workers, like 90 per cent of them, do not produce. It’s more of a headache for the farmers than assistance. There are some farmers who benefit from them, but the large [number] of farmers have issues. Some of them don’t work five days per week, and that is something that is constant. They are missing a day, two days, three days.”
The stigma and low returns on Agriculture, in addition to economic and climatic uncertainties, have made the sector unattractive to most young people. The belief is that a lot of youth do not see how as an industry, agriculture can benefit them.
Moreover, challenges derived from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as supply chain shortages and food security issues, heightened the conversation locally and regionally about the need for Small Island Developing States to produce their own food and lessen food importation. The Team Unity Administration and the Labour Administration, following the August 05 General Elections, repeatedly spoke about prioritising agriculture and giving the necessary assistance to farmers. Farmers, however, continue to cry out and say that enough isn’t being done to assist them.
Since St. Kitts transitioned from sugar production to service industries as the main economic stimuli, Agriculture has significantly declined. The Citizenship By Investment Programme and Tourism have dominated the economy, and agriculture in the Federation has been quite slow in reorienting itself as an economic driver and a relevant sector for major investment. In Flanders’ opinion, the Government prioritises Tourism over Agriculture.
“Let’s take a serious look at Tourism compared to Agriculture. The Government bent over backwards for Tourism, but at the end of the day, “What did they do for Agriculture.”
Flanders solicited the public’s support in ensuring that the farmers are heard and appropriately assisted.