Agriculture is one of the key diversifying industries in TT, yet the sector remains critically underdeveloped. It contributes less than 0.5 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs just about four per cent of the population. But creating a sustainable sector is fundamental to protecting the country’s food security — or at least reducing the food import bill.
TT imports over $5 billion of its food, and exports about $900 million — although the exact balance of trade is skewed since incorporated in the food import bill are raw materials for the agroprocessing industries. In the last three decades, agriculture’s contribution to the local economy peaked in 1985 (three per cent) and bottomed out in 2007 when it was less than 0.4 per cent of GDP; it’s been rising incrementally since then.
Agriculture, though, still suffers from a lack of commitment — young people in particular seem to be looking for greener pastures that don’t actually require cultivation.
The Caribbean has long had a history of monoculture and plantation agriculture, but in rural communities, farms have traditionally been for subsistence and often run by families. As society evolves, this bucolic way of life is being outpaced and fast becoming obsolete.
“While no empirical data exists, my observation from interacting with farmers, fishers and their representative associations over the years and across the country is that the number of family farms is declining but not necessarily because of a lack of interest in the profession of food production; the challenges simply outweigh the benefit,” agricultural economist, Omardath Maharaj said.
The average farming family has had to adjust to everyday life: education and other dreams and aspirations in keeping with trends in social mobility, including occupational and geographical shifts.
“Our current lifestyles are marked by utility bills, loan commitments, and other timelines which a complete reliance on smaller-scale agriculture would not afford,” he said.
A recent report by the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation in Agriculture (IICA) on Family Farming in the Caribbean said although agriculture is viewed as one of the sectors that can strengthen the integration process (through intra-regional trade and enhanced food and nutrition security), and mitigate adverse social economic and environmental impacts of climate change in the region, very little or no attention has been paid to understanding and supporting family farms in the region.
In Caricom nations, especially, IICA found the main shortcomings included:
A lack of institutional framework designed to guide the development of family farms.
A lack of appreciation and the undervaluing of the contribution of family farms by society and governments.
Weak and uncoordinated economic, technological, social and environmental polices supporting family farm development.
Lack of public policies to encourage youth and women to remain and work in rural areas.
IICA suggested policies in the Caribbean need to be linked to family ownership, succession planning and farming commitment.
In Trinidad, settling outstanding State land tenure claims, a pivotal requirement in guaranteeing legitimacy is the Ministry of Agriculture’s primary focus, but with 20,000 files still to be processed — some dating from as far back as 1946 — family farmers often remain in limbo regardless of their desire to farm.
“It is important to consider multiple and differentiated markets and demand points, for example, replacement of imports, organic agricultural production, tourism, high value agricultural production, and production for the West Indian diaspora,” IICA said.
There is also a need for continued consumption and nutrition policy approaches that encourage families in the Caribbean to eat and drink locally, as well as integrated social and economic planning that promotes simultaneous policies for health, education and agriculture, the report stated.
The conversation must, however, begin with a clear understanding and definition of “family farming” in the local context. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), it broadly refers to all related activities which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family labour, including both women and men.
The FAO description applies to the general structure of a proportion of primary agricultural operations in TT, but an economical farm size would exceed the labour provided by a nuclear family, Maharaj said.
“In the current paradigm, the average farming household is confronted with several challenges that arguably justify their migration from the sector, albeit stretched over time,” he added.
Some of the setbacks for farmers, even if they wanted to enter the sector, include slow policy enactment and enforcement, praedial larceny, and a consumer demand that keeps farmers on a treadmill that requires them to produce faster and more abundantly.
“In that routine, many have moved away from tree crops, such as cocoa and coffee, and a deep-rooted commitment, towards short-term ‘cash’ crops and may use more inputs such as fertilisers as their coping strategy but which is certainly not sustainable,” he said.
Trinidad doesn’t need megafarms, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat told the Business Day recently, it needs mega farmers and family farms can be that vehicle. But the bureaucracy involved is just one of the deterrents that family farmers who want to invest and improve have to face.
Getting a farmer’s licence, for example, requires a deed for the land being worked — and with no proof of land tenure farmers can’t get one — missing out on the opportunity to capitalise on the various incentives available.
Even established farmers can get frustrated.
“The licence has to be in my name, not the plantation, so every couple of years I have to go to the Ministry of Agriculture, and I have to take the deed. Now this farm has been operating for a hundred years. And every time they have the nerve to say they need send an officer to visit the place to see what is happening. It’s there. It isn’t going anywhere,” Philippe Agostini, a coconut farmer and president of the Coconut Growers Association, said.
Farming in TT, then is not very appealing to young people who want to enter the business.
“You know how to get a small fortune in agriculture? Start with a large one,” he quipped.
The local sector has lost its momentum, he said, not just with declining farmers and farms, but even research. Even praedial larceny, he said, is something the police don’t seem to take seriously, but it can account for up to a third in lost output. There also has to be a large acreage for economies of scale, and minimum labour costs and as much mechanisation as possible. For some people, the investment required is just not worth the reward.
“Right now, you have a set of old farmers on established plantations which are getting old and need to be replanted,” he said, although he acknowledged his fortunate position to be able to invest in his plantations, as well as the value-added opportunities that comes from CGA’s agroprocessing and other upstream value-added production lines.
The reality of life, however, is different for many families in farming and fishing, Maharaj said, who are continuing relative poverty or lower socio-economic status, lower levels of educational and occupational opportunity, discrimination and devaluation of their heritage; often times by the mainstream urban society – whom they work to feed and sustain.
“We must forge relationships and clear communication channels since these families can offer answers to questions that secondary research will only speculate, interesting content, access to like-minded people, and also advocates for territorial marketing. It remains a fact that more must be done to bring about positive qualitative and quantitative changes in the lives of these families and communities hitherto left largely outside of any support from formal institutions,” he said.