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In danger

by Shawn Cumberbatch

dairyindustryBarbados’ dairy industry is in real danger of going under unless there is a comprehensive effort to reform it.

And a major part of this rescue plan should focus on getting Barbadians to consume the majority of milk produced here, while going all out to boost regional exports.

That’s the expert advice coming from Barbadian Agricultural Economist, Sophia Kellman, who said dairy farmers were constrained by internal problems, including high costs, a lack of support infrastructure and independent economic institutions, the absence of locally relevant research, and the quota system as it is currently structured.

This was in addition to the major external challenge “associated with export-generation and promotion, and competition from milk, milk powder and evaporated milk imports”, factors which continued to “strain the industry”.

Kellman, who is based in Irvine, California, is well placed to comment on the current challenges facing not only farmers who supply the Pine Hill Dairy with milk but the PHD itself, having done her Master’s thesis on the topic Spilt Milk: Trade Liberalisation And The Barbados Dairy Industry.

In an extensive interview with Barbados TODAY in light of current uncertainty and financial losses affecting the industry, she said she feared the dairy industry here could, like the sugar sector, become more of a memory than a reality for the island.

“The industry is at a crossroads but it remains something of a mystery to many and a somewhat ‘privileged’ sector.

This could work against it. As cow numbers decline, so will milk production. Entry costs are prohibitive and only a select few can even afford to own a cow today. If disinterest in agriculture, and high prevailing prices — land, labour, and feed costs — continue, it is almost certain that the dairy industry will collapse,” she warned.

“We need only look at the sugar and beef industries for examples. High domestic price levels put a strain on all sectors of the economy — but particularly on those that compete in any way with the international market. ‘Cadillac’ cows strain farming. They hold the promise of potential for higher milk output but they also mean increased costs of care as the high-producing cows are usually not suited for tropical climates so they have to be kept cool, etcetera if they are to produce adequate milk.”

Kellman advised that while there was potential for improvement, some aspects would take time to address. However, there were other measures which “can be taken almost immediately to strengthen the industry”.

Those steps she singled out as likely to led to a stronger Barbados dairy industry included: * Encouraging private investment in the industry, including the possible production of local powdered milk. * Development of a comprehensive high quality grass programme since cow nutrition experts agree that, where, available, grass, supplemented with concentrate feed and supplements, was ideal. * Encouraging local milk use in as many sectors as possible, including hotels and tourism generally, schools, including home economics classes, and cottage industries. * Expansion of the production range from milk, such as specialty cheeses, high quality yogurts, and “home-made’ butter kits.

Kellman also recommended a re-evaluation of the exchange rate structure, encouraging farmer cohesion, including bulk purchases, focussing on feed development which used local inputs and is therefore not as much subject to the whims of the international market, and shipping and port conditions; educating and collaborating with the public to manage perceptions about agriculture, in general and dairying, in particular, and increasing farmer/processor collaboration.

She said she saw real value in getting Barbadians to drink more of the milk produced at home, pointing out that while in the past the domestic market was able to absorb a lot more of the beverage, “consumer tastes are changing and consumers are becoming savvier and more health conscious”.

“The onus is on Pine Hill or any processor, to reach out to different segments of the market. Farmers and Pine Hill should channel consumer preferences in their favour. High quality yogurts made with more fresh milk would allow PHD to emphasise quality,” she suggested.

“While a certain consumer prefers fresh milk (for drinking, in cereal or as a supplement) another consumer wants a small packet of shelf-ready, long-life milk that he can take to work or school and use in tea or coffee or on-the go. Consumers want choices, not gimmicks.

“Incorporating cheese- or yogurt-making in the schools’ home economics programmes, teaching such skills to home-makers or other individuals or community groups could also create a market for local milk products. Some consumers want organic products. If some farmers would expand into this area, they would be able to fill a market vacuum,” Kellman added.

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