Trinidad and Tobago - Farmers struggle to sprout after back-to-back floods

28.11.2022 269 views

Scores of farmers across the country are reeling from the effects of back-to-back flooding, skyrocketing costs of chemicals and fertilisers with many of them of the verge of giving up.

During a visit to the water-logged fields in Cunupia, Macoya, Orange Grove, Felicity, Cumuto, Chaguaramas and other areas over the past two weeks, the pain of starting over, rooting out bearing crops and mounting debt was evident for many farmers.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been collating claims for compensation owing to flooding at various offices across the country and field officers have been dispatched to verify the claims. But some farmers, those who are registered and have title for the land they occupy, are grateful for the payouts, they say getting back in the fields after suffering such devastation was also an emotional challenge but they have no choice but to dust off and get back at it.

At a public consultation, hosted by the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (Namdevco), at the Macoya market on November 16, which attracted farmers from Valencia, Plum Mitan, Tabaquite, Bon Air, Cunupia and other districts, Agricultural Society president Daryl Rampersad advocated for a bigger wholesale market for farmers to sell their produce.

In response, deputy CEO of Namdevco Rayber Bowen said there were plans to expand the Macoya and Debe wholesale market and establish a farmer's market at Piarco.

Rampersad said over two-thirds of the farmers in TT did not have tenure for the lands on which they farm and not entitled to benefit from any of the subsidies offered by the government nor any compensation for loss of crops from natural disasters such as flooding. He said as chair of an advisory committee to the Minister of Agriculture he had made a proposal for producing farmer, whether they had title to the land or not, should benefit from all the state had to offer and hoped by next year the proposal will be approved.

For Deodath "Pundit" Basdeo, 60, a farmer of the Jerningham Junction Farmers Association, was still counting his losses. Basdeo occupies five two-acre parcels of land given to former Caroni (1975) Ltd workers, and for the last 15 years he has tried crops such as paw paw, bodi, sweet peppers, melongene, patchoi and hot peppers.

There is approximately 500 acres of land available to farmers in the Jerningham district but only one third is occupied. The land is bounded by Bridal Road, the Cunupia River and Assaraf Road, in Charlieville.

Some of the farmers have given up entirely after falling victim to floods, pest disease and praedial larceny.

"Everybody got flooded out this rainy season," Basdeo said and because the majority do not have tenure for the lands they rent, they will not be able to seek any compensation from the Ministry of Agriculture for any losses.

Another Cunupia farmer, Tirath Magram, 53, a registered farmer, said the floods left his field water-logged and the tubers of his sweet potato began to rot in June. He claimed he sent in a claim seeking compensation but never got any payment.

President of the Jerningham Junction Farmers Association Marlon Mathura said his members were not looking for handouts. Mathura said they are willing to pool their resources to help off-set the costs of diesel if the ministry of a contractor is willing to clear the overgrown drains so that water can flow into the Cunupia River.

Mathura said even when farmers get a bountiful crop they are targeted by thieves who use the maze of oils and roads to escape with van-loads of produce.

Iron barriers once installed at the five entrances and exits were removed by people who use the garden roads as access to get from Bridal Road to Charlieville.

"We have solution but we don't have the authority to implement it," Mathura said. He said the State has failed to desilt the drains for several years leading to a backup of water and flooded fields.

Mathura said almost all of the farmers who occupy plots at Jerningham were producing farmers and rely on their gardens to feed their families. He credited the Agricultural Society, the area's MP Vandana Mohit and Namdevco for their support but pleaded for the Agriculture Ministry to dedicate an agricultural extension officer to hear the concerns of his group.

At Orange Grove, Tacarigua farmers were also dealing with water-logged fields and pleaded for the authorities to dredge the surrounding rivers and drains to allow for easy runoff.

But for farmer Noel Bhagan, work to widen the Macoya River was only being done on southern side and encroaching on his beds. He questioned why no work was being done on the opposite side and pointed to piles of bamboo and other debris clogging the waterway.

Bhagan said he had to uproot bearing hot pepper plants after they remained under water for several days.

The same complaint was made by Tucker Valley, Chaguaramas farmer Shamga Jackson who is optimistic that the Chaguaramas Development Authority will keep its promise to relocate the 25 farmers to areas not flood-prone with security of tenure.

In Felicity, Javed Khan, who has been planting sweet potatoes on 100 acres and other crops for over 15 years, said he has invested in mechanised water guns and the increasing costs of diesel to operate them had taken his costs upwards. He is one of the farmers in Felicity Food Crop Project and has diversified to include rearing goats, eddoes, corn and other produce on a seven-acre parcel of land in another area in Felicity.

Khan said apart from frequent floods, pests are becoming resistant to insecticides and the cost of chemicals was also climbing. He said the rising sea levels often left his fields with stagnant water for days leading to crop loss.

Khan also has a temporary farmer's permit which allows him to access the various subsidies available including rebates on the purchase of machinery.

Like other farmers in other districts, Khan said access roads, bridges, drains and rivers need to be maintained on a regular basis. He said in the past the ADB has been understanding when his crops were affected by the sweet potato weevil or floods and got a moratorium on his loans but that was based on his good standing as a client over many years.

He said he has been trying to advocate for the Felicity farmers to band together so that issues such as street lights and other infrastructure can be installed. Khan said he uses the services of a middle man to get his goods to the market because it was simply too unsafe for him to do so and going to the market was too time consuming. He said he hoped one day local fast-food outlets can offer locally-grown sweet potatoes as an option on the menu, such as sweet potato fries, even if it was for just one day, to show their support for home-grown produce. Khan's sweet potatoes have been certified by Namdevco and he was instrumental in providing provisions during the covid19 hamper drive funded by the State.

In rural Cumuto, third generation farmer Ryan Emmanuel is passionate to get the citrus farmers in his community active once again. Emmanuel, 38, the president of the Cumuto Farmers Association, said 47 farmers there are registered with the Agricultural Society and he believes there is strength in unity.

With his father and uncles, they have a 12-acre citrus estate off Cumuto Left Bank Road, off St Marie Emmanuel Road. They don't have electricity nor pipe-borne water on their estate and the road is deplorable.

The farmers said they are willing to assist the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation spread the material to fix the roads but they did not have access to heavy machinery nor trucks to transport the aggregate.

Emmanuel said chicken farmers lost their entire pens owing to floods in 2018 and root crop farmers also suffered significant losses. He said the clearing of tributaries to the main rivers flowing from Mt Tamana could help improve the runoff of water. At a bridge leading to his estate, a mature tree stood in the centre of the river. Emmanuel said the surge of water at time overspills across the road, about 15 feet above.

Emmanuel said Cumuto, which he referred to as the citrus basket of the country, can get back to full production if the cost of plants, averaging $45 each, is subsidised and the budding and grafting is reintroduced at Centeno and other state farms.

He is encouraging all farmers who have title to the lands they occupy to be a registered farmer so they can access all the subsidies the Government has to offer and his intention is to educate the farmers in his district about the benefits.

Emmanuel also complained about the poor response from the police and the Praedial Larceny Unit to reports of theft of fruits by the van-loads. He proposed the setting up of satellite praedial larceny units in several areas including Cumuto and Valencia districts.

As he embarks on his mission to unite the farmers of Cumuto, Caratal, Coryal, Little Cora Road and other surrounding districts, Emmanuel said he will continue to rely on the support of Agricultural Society so all can benefit and get more young people involved in farming.

Even with all the challenges, Emmanuel said he had a love for farming and will encourage more people to grow their own food as TT becomes a more self-reliant country.

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