Tobago Agricultural Society president Dedan Daniel said while farmers are extremely heartened by the Government's decision, in the budget, to remove taxes and duties on agricultural merchandise, access to loans from the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) for production remains a major bugbear within the sector.
"It is like pulling teeth," he said of the process. "The access to loans remains one of the huge problems affecting the agricultural sector. And this has been so for decades."
Speaking to Newsday Tobago, Daniel said it appeared the ADB is operating with the same controls as a commercial bank.
"To be fair to the ADB, their interest rates are lower than the commercial banks. They have some other support services that they extend to farmers.
"But yet still the requirements, collateral and to be able to get the loans in the first place, still a bit out of the reach of the average farmer."
Daniel said some attention also should have been paid in the budget to making the process of accessing loans less tedious for farmers.
"It makes no sense getting that tax-free status but you do not have money going into the sector in terms of accessing funding from the ADB to be able to enjoy the tax-free status.
"So I am saying that while, on the surface, we are happy that the tax-free nature of the sector will lift some of the burden of farmers in the sector, the mechanics of how it works and how the funding is going to happen within the sector to enjoy being in a tax-free state – that needs to be looked at.
"Because we would have expected with the tax-free status that they would have changed some of the requirements in accessing loans from the Agricultural Development Bank. They would have created other facilities that would have allowed farmers to get agricultural credit."
On the flip side, Daniel said farmers who are able to access land must use it for agricultural purposes.
"We must be responsible and fair, in the sense that when you have access to the land, that actual agricultural activity happens on the land, because we have this strange situation that four per cent of the land that has been accessed for agricultural purposes, no production really happens on it.
"So, while the issue of access to land is important, the process is very, very slow. We need to see that the process is speeded up and we are hoping that with speeding up of the processes in the Ministry of Agriculture and through the THA (Tobago House of Assembly), that farmers will be able to access lands a lot faster."
Daniel said there are many people with agricultural lands that are not producing.
"We need to have that out in the open as well."
Daniel said the association also welcomes the plan in the budget to computerise some of the processes in the Ministry of Agriculture. This, he believes, will reduce the red tape.
He was disappointed with the $708 million allocated for agriculture.
"It is a recurring trend with agriculture to be given the type of priority that it's been given. I would think that given the repeated call by the government for diversifying the economy away from the petrochemical sector, that more priority would have been given to agriculture, but that was not reflected."
He said agriculture must be regarded as an area through which the economy can be diversified.
"In that sense, I am a bit concerned that an opportunity is being presented for the sector to contribute more to diversifying the economy, and yet still, look what has been allocated to it.
"While national security and agriculture are very important, I am thinking that agriculture is one of the ways in which the turnaround of the economy could happen. It is regrettable the allocation did not really reflect that."