Angry farmers voice their displeasure with agriculture officials during consultation

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Farmers representing various districts across the country came together in a consultation with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture late last week.

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By Orville Williams

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What started as an evening of scripted presentations turned into a series of impassioned calls from several farmers who gathered last Thursday for a consultation with agriculture officials at the Multipurpose Center.

Agriculture Minister Samantha Marshall was joined by Permanent Secretary Colin O’Keiffe, Director of Agriculture Gregory Bailey, Director of Extension Owolabi Elabanjo and representatives from the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI ) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), addressing the nearly 50 farmers present, representing districts across the country.

Paul Lucas and Craig Thomas, of CARDI and IICA respectively, kicked things off with an update on the work their respective organizations are doing to support the sector in Antigua and Barbuda – from pest resistant grass to drought for pastoralists to irrigation technologies for farmers. .

Thomas in particular highlighted the importance of accessing grants, noting that there are many international entities offering “free money” to help small farmers, money that often bypasses farmers in Antigua. .

He urged farmers to seek help in developing proposals to access this funding, especially now that inflation is weighing heavily on the sector.

Ministry of Agriculture officials also spoke of their work to support farmers, while acknowledging the many challenges – including lack of consistent access to water, prevalence of predial flight and difficulties in acquisition of land – faced by the sector.

Among other suggestions, they encouraged farmers to form small associations to better lobby for district-specific support and to be more innovative in their production methods, while assuring them that the ministry remains “steadfast” in its intention to provide the necessary support.

This assurance was seen as ironic by many farmers who took center stage after the initial presentations to voice their concerns, as they complained of facing the same struggles for decades without any noticeable intervention from the ministry. .

Take predial larceny for example. A farmer explained that in the words of a police officer, someone who trespassed on his property with the obvious intent to steal would not face serious repercussions unless they were caught with the stolen produce.

The farmer then wondered if he should ‘sit and watch’ the thief leave his farm with the stolen goods, before calling the police. By then, he joked, the thief would be long gone.

Another farmer – on the same subject – speculated that if he bought a goat for $10,000 and it was stolen and sold for much less, the only punishment that would be meted out to the thief would be jail.

Arguing that the laws don’t provide enough redress for farmers, he also joked that “all that would happen was a man would be in jail and I would be $10,000 short.”

“Where is the Ministry of Agriculture? asked the two men, “to demand legislative changes that will deter people from committing predicial theft and provide better protection for farmers? »

Another major concern voiced by farmers – and across the country it seems over the past two months – was the erratic water supply, compounded by prolonged drought conditions.

The Minister of Agriculture tried to allay this concern, speaking about the many improvements proposed by the government to permanently remedy the water situation, but she was challenged by farmers, including the one lamented that no solution to the long-standing water situation had been found. in decades.

However, the Minister made a bold promise to farmers, on the subject of competition in the consumer market and the challenge posed by imported products.

Farmers lamented the change in the operations of the Central Marketing Corporation (CMC), from its original purpose of supporting farmers to now serving as a retail hub and in many ways a “competitor” for the farming community.

Marshall recognized this change and pledged to reform the CMC, so that it could once again fulfill its original purpose. She also noted the continued efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on imported food, adding that the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) also deserves some attention.

Farmers also raised other issues such as the impact of wild tamarind, which was introduced to the country in the 1970s to feed livestock but became an invasive plant that was expensive to get rid of.

The ease of acquiring land has also been raised, with farmers protesting the lengthy and costly process of assessing and allocating land. The ministry recalled that changes had been made to make the investigation process free for farmers and promised to clarify these situations in the near future.

Along with these and other issues, the mostly small-scale farmers who attended lamented the “rough” treatment and neglect they feel they are receiving from the ministry, wondering why large-scale farmers were absent from the consultation.

“They need help from the ministry, they have money. And that’s why we’re the ones who have to deal with these struggles, because we don’t have the kind of resources [the large-scale farmers] we have and must depend on help,” one farmer told the Observer.

She also revealed that, like many farmers who participated in the consultation, farming is a multi-generational endeavor for her family. Without the proper support, she added, it could very well end with her.

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