Milk done, now what

As last week came to a close local dairy farmers got the promise of a lifeline from Government — an initiative that should also keep the Pine Hill Dairy afloat.

While we know that one of the biggest problems with public administration in Barbados today does not relate to the making of promises, but rather their implementation, we will nevertheless step out on a limb and offer congratulations to the Government.

We recognise that we are publishers and not farmers, but it does not take a lot of trying to understand the extent of the fears of collapse many of the 40 odd dairy farmers would have been having in recent months as a result of the decline in the sale of local milk and milk products, and the decision of the dairy to first reduce its intake of fresh milk from the farmers and then to take milk only on a week-on, week-off basis.

As we said last week, whether or not the farmer chooses to milk his cows every day, he still has to feed and care for them daily — an equation that does not enhance profits of survivability.

However, with the Cabinet decision to compel the School Meals Department to increase its purchase of milk for the island’s primary school children, the issuing of vouchers through the Welfare Department for needy families to purchase milk, and a yet-to-be-spelt-out initiative that will see a drop in milk prices at the retail level to encourage more Barbadians generally to drink milk, things must be looking up for the industry.

What we wish to note, however, is that this push to enhance the fortunes of the dairy sector, ought to serve as a reminder, as we have pointed out on more than one occasion in this space, that agriculture generally is of such importance to our economic and medical health as a nation, that it truly deserves far more state attention.

We have reached the stage as a nation where idle arable land now outstrips land under cultivation by a ratio that ought to be a worry to every Barbadian. Our most fertile areas in St. John, St. George, St. Thomas, St. Peter and St. Lucy now resemble forests, with River Tamarind appearing to be almost as prominent on the landscape as sugar cane once was.

We cannot seriously expect to come out of this current economic and fiscal crisis without attacking the gremlins that plague so critical a sector. Minister of Agriculture, Dr. David Estwick has taken steps to save dairy producers: It is now time to roll out the programme for agriculture generally.

We cannot afford to wait for the resuscitation of the sugar (cane) industry, because based on the infrastructural work to be done, and the time frame given for a start (and the speed at which we do business here), we have this sneaky suspicion we will be on the eve of the next scheduled general election before we see tangible results.

In the meanwhile, Government needs to come up with a package of incentives to get plantation owners who are still interested in agriculture mobilised again, while ensuring that a sufficient number of disincentives are also in place to nudge those who would prefer to sacrifice the national interest in the name of a quick buck.

More importantly, since it has control over a sizeable chunk of plantations that account for the island’s sugar lands through the Barbados Agricultural Management Company, Government needs to lead from the front by telling Barbadians how it plans to return to full production all those thousands of arable acres under its control.

While we are forced to make cuts in the allocation of state funds to the Ministry of Health, there ought to be a concomitant programme aimed at ensuring that Barbadians are less likely to require those health-related services. We could not ask for a more sensible start than ensuring that the diet of the population supports this.

We have the land to grow what we need, we have the people to grow what we need, we have the knowledge to grow what we need. What we need is the will to bring them all together in a way that takes us in the direction we ought to be headed in. What we need is leadership.

While our foreign exchange security net of recent years appears to be developing holes, and while we continue to have questions about our ability to mend that net at this time, import substitution has to be high on our agenda. There are few things that offer us the opportunity to stop sending foreign exchange out of the country as growing our own food. It is time for a new national focus on agriculture.

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