THIS COUNTRY once had 14,400 acres of land under citrus cultivation. Now, fewer than 1,000 acres are dedicated to the crop, as labour shortages and lack if interest contribute to the industry's decline over the last decade.
But despite the challenges facing the local industry, the Co-operative Citrus Growers Association (CCGA) believes the industry's potential to be great again has not been totally squeezed out. CCGA president Felix Clarke was optimistic during a Business Day interview last Friday, and while loss of land under cultivation has put a damper on local citrus farmers' efforts to develop the industry, the group has sought alternatives. When labour for citrus in TT declined over the last seven to eight years, Clarke said, the CCGA took the decision to invest in land in Guyana.
The association has 1,000 acres of land in Guyana, with 200 acres now under citrus cultivation. Given economic developments taking place in Guyana, Clarke said Guyana could be the "next economic frontier in the West Indies." The CCGA, he said, has been in talks with the Guyanese government about additional land for citrus cultivation.
This does not mean there is no future for citrus in TT. In 2008, SM Jaleel acquired the popular Trinidad Fruit Juice range of brands from CCGA. As part of that agreement, CCGA could not get involved in the manufacture of juice after five years. (SM Jaleel declined to comment for this story.)
With that period having ended in 2013, Clarke said the association is now in the process of getting back into the citrus industry in a significant way.
He observed that the dynamics of the industry have changed with a focus being placed now on juice drinks as opposed to straight fruit juices.
To make sure it’s at the top of its game, the association is assessing and regrouping its assets to fit its new strategy. Part of that is setting up a new citrus juice processing plant at its property in Todds Road, Freeport, operational.
The association is in the process of trying to raise the necessary capital to get back into the juice manufacturing business, and are also looking at ways to finance the project, so there's no timeline in the near future for getting it up and running.
The CCGA is currently trying to sell the land in Laventille where its former building was located, which Clarke admitted was taking some time to complete. (The building was vandalised earlier this year.) While SM Jaleel held a lease for the property, that lease ended in the middle of 2018. An official of the company had told Newsday previously that the property has been returned to the CCGA. The property falls within the boundaries of the San Juan/Regional Corporation, but according to chairman Anthony Roberts, the corporation does not own it, nor is it aware of who is behind its destruction
At the association's Todds Road citrus estate, there's about 106 acres which it hopes to develop for citrus production.
The last reported figure for the food import bill, mentioned in last year's budget debate was $5.6 billion. Clarke said imported fruit juices were part of that bill. He estimated that approximately 80 per cent of the juice in TT is imported. In order to reduce this bill, Clarke said people have to realise that producing local foods is essential and citrus is part of that equation. He was confident that if the CCGA, citrus farmers and other stakeholders work together, it is possible to revive the citrus industry to a point where it could "provide all the citrus that we need."
The CCGA’s existence pre-dates 1937. The association was one of five agricultural groups responsible for the selection of members of the Board of Agriculture of TT. This information is contained in the Department of Agriculture Ordinance 1937. Clarke did not know off hand how many farmers are members of the CCGA right now but believed most of them sell their fruits on the local market.