The late Prime Minister Patrick Manning would likely be rolling in his grave if he found out what has happened to his 2020 vision for agriculture.
In 2007, Manning proposed the idea of mega-farms, devoting $100 million to establish nine farms.
He hoped that the farms will train farmers in modern agricultural techniques and also to put a dent on the domestic food import bill so that by 2020, T&T could be partially self-sufficient with food.
Unfortunately, the mega farm project totally failed and much of T&T’s valuable land resources went to waste.
Today these mega-farms are out of operation, some have been sold and others abandoned.
During an exclusive interview with Guardian Media, mega-farmer and entrepreneur Joe Pires, who acquired 200 acres of State lands to establish two mega-farms at Tucker Valley and Edinburgh, Chaguanas said a lack of infrastructure undermined the success of his mega-farms.
He said the 100 acres of land at Edinburgh was never farmed during the dry season because there was no irrigation.
His 100 acres parcel of land at Tucker Valley, Chaguaramas was unprofitable and in 2018, the government under Minister Clarence Rambharat took back 50 acres to give to the Guave Road farmers.
At that time Planning Minister Camille Robinson Regis said the Guave Road farmers had been in constant occupation of approximately 122.6 acres of the land in excess of 30 years and leases would be provided to regularise them.
But Pires said the farmers never put the land to productive use.
Out of the remaining 50 acres he owned, Pires said 20 acres were still forested, about 10 acres were being farmed and the rest was used for greenhouses, car parks, living quarters and a restaurant. That meant only 15 acres out of 50 acres went into actual farming.
Unprofitability forced Pires to sell the remaining 50-acre parcel to Devi Boodoosingh, the owner of 02 Park who now organises weddings and other functions on the agricultural estate.
Pires said this offered a greater margin of profitability than actual farming.
He said the 100-acre parcel at Chaguanas is being cultivated slowly with fruit trees.
“We plant three to four acres of fruit trees per year. It would cost us $150,000 to put down irrigation and as a farmer, we do not want to spend that. We just want to plant,” Pires said.
What will make mega farms profitable?
Pires said the idea of mega farming cannot be profitable in the current state.
He said infrastructure was a big problem and the government should provide irrigation is farming was to become profitable.
Pires recommended that Farm Parks be set up across the country comprising of 100-acre parcels allocated to multiple farmers in five-acre blocks. He said each farmer should have leases for a year. He said every farmer should belong to a cooperative and should pool funds together to purchase equipment to be used within the 100-acre parcel. Pires said each Farm Park should have proper infrastructure and a packing facility. He said an irrigation line should be set up linking all 100 acre Farm Parks. This irrigation line could utilise the water used in the cooling towers of plants on the Point Lisas Industrial Estate.
He noted that NAMDEVCO should facilitate markets for the farmers. Imports should be reduced incrementally on an annual basis with set targets and T&T should focus on agro-processing whilst forming partnerships to utilise land in Guyana and elsewhere. Pires said tomato paste and pineapple, coconut, pawpaw and even locally produced milk should offer opportunities for downstream industries.
Meanwhile, plant researcher and breeder Ramdeo Boondoo said the mega-farm project failed because the plan was incomplete.
“The farm was supposed to be a private sector investment facilitated by the State. NAMDEVCO was supposed to organise quality control and markets. Through NAMDEVCO, a scheduled was supposed to be outlined so that farmers will know what to produce and what quantity,” he said. However, politics tainted the mega-farms and people who had no interest in farming, took possession of valuable State land,” Boondoo added.
He denied that larceny made the farms unprofitable.
“When I was in the Agricultural Society we looked at issues of land tenure, praedial larceny and lack of infrastructure which undermined profitability in the agricultural sector. These problems still exist today,” he said.
Late last year, Minister Clarence Rambharat said the government wanted mega-farmers and not mega-farms. Permanent Secretary Angela Siew in 2017 said the mega-farm project had been shelved because of lack of funding. She said many issues with leases could not be fixed because of staffing woes at the Land Management Division.
Several emails and Whatsapp messages were sent to Minister Rambharat and his communications manager Dominic Hinds for comment. Minister Rambharat did not respond to questions. Hinds said a response will be issued sometime next week.