“My mouth shall speak of wisdom; and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding” – Psalm 49:3
The Barbados Society for Technologists in Agriculture (BSTA) held its annual conference last Saturday. The BSTA was first established in 1939 as the Barbados Sugar Technologists’ Association and operated as a technical industry association providing a number of high level publications. In 1990, because of the sunset industry status of the sugar industry, the organisation evolved into an organisation which focused on the wider aspects of agriculture and assumed the new name, Barbados Society for Technologists in Agriculture.
The theme for this year’s conference, was, How can BSTA help to meet your needs? The feature address at the conference was given by experienced Sugar Technologist, Mr. Keith Laurie, on behalf of the BSTA’s sugar subcommittee. His topic was “A novel approach to save the sugar cane industry”.
There are some who think that sugar cane is a dead industry and we should do nothing to revive it. In defence, Keith said that: “The panorama of the fields of sugar cane is an integral part of the beauty of the environment of Barbados and is what the tourists continue to enjoy. If we abandon the planting of sugar cane the fields will quickly revert to “bush” as has happened in Trinidad and St Kitts.
The present disastrous outbreak of cow-itch in recently abandoned fields is ample proof of what can happen. We will also see a rapid expansion in the rat population with the concomitant increase in diseases such as leptospirosis and also the fields will become ideal places to grow marijuana.”
There was a time when the majority of the total land mass in Barbados of 105,000 acres (166 sq. miles) was cultivated in sugarcane, primarily to produce commodity sugar, using slave labour, for the “mother country”.
Keith added that: “Sugar has provided a major part of the Gross Domestic Product of Barbados for centuries and although it has shrunk in comparison with tourism it can, particularly through our viable rum industry, which exported over BB$70 million in 2011, continue to help our struggling economy earn foreign exchange.”
Today, the acreage under sugarcane is less than 20,000 acres and dwindling. The open market price which one gets for sugarcane is far less than its cost of production. This is not a sustainable business model. Also, Barbados imports over BB $600 million per year in food related items, hence one does have to ask the question, “Wither sugar cane and agriculture?”
The main focus for any reparatory arrangement would be to, first of all, address the cost of production of a ton of sugarcane per acre which could be done not only by increasing the productivity of each aspect of the production and processing activity, but also by increasing the productivity of labour through increased training, the use of technology enhancement and the re-design of process flow.
Since export commodity sugar is a sunset industry, the primary opportunities, under the existing production technology operation, are to stop selling to the European market below the cost of production, and produce more sugar for the local market, instead of buying sugar from, say, Guyana at a price much greater than the open market price. Added to this, we would produce more molasses for the rum industry which would reduce the imports of molasses. One would then rationalise the use of the agricultural land to increase the production of sugar at a cost-effective price.
For years, the industry has languished and there has been one study commissioned after another by local and external consultants, the last of which, it is understood, cost BD$ millions and the report has not yet been released. There is still no direction in which a diversified sugarcane industry should go.
The conference was attended by a wide cross-section of persons representing government institutions, the sugar industry, the UWI, international institutions, educational institutions, crop, livestock and fisheries producers/processors. No one could answer the question, “Who is leading the sugarcane industry – where does the buck stop?” It is like a ship with a broken rudder.
This is compounded by the fact that the production of sugar is a value-added activity and, if there is no information on the amount of cane planted, which for most farmers is currently at a loss, then there can be no sensible planning in terms of factory capacity and efficiency. In other words, one is just shooting in the dark.
I constantly refer, in this column, to the five functions of management: corporate governance; innovative marketing; operations; personnel; and financial investment. If we examine these functions against the sugarcane industry, we can immediately see that there is a gap between the potential for each function and the status quo.
After discussion on Mr. Laurie’s presentation, the conference focused on three independent interactive dialogue sessions on crops, livestock/fisheries and support services. These sessions were designed to address the theme of the conference.
A number of innovative ideas emerged from the diverse backgrounds of the participants. The BSTA has promised to collate and present them back to the participants of the conference. The BSTA’s Council, which meets once a month, will now have to convert the large volume of information garnered at the conference into projects and then find human and financial resources to execute these projects. The BSTA President made it quite clear that these projects could only be undertaken if the accustomed contributions from the Research and Development Fund were to be resuscitated.