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Why citrus growers are wary

In Micah Goodin’s story about the citrus industry on page four of last Friday’s Amandala, former senator, Anthony Chanona, spoke of a lack of energy in the industry. In the same story, Stann Creek West area representative, Rodwell Ferguson, is quoted as saying that production is down 50%. This is consistent with industry trends throughout the world, and it is near all “citrus greening” related. The citrus industry is indeed going through a rough period right now. This citrus greening is tough.

We are not the only nation facing this problem. According to www.freshplaza.com, Citrus greening disease is widespread in the key centers of orange cultivation and is one of the main factors contributing to a crisis in the global orange market. Average annual growth rates over the last 2 years have been at -7.0% (that’s minus 7%). A reduction of the global orange market volume is expected once again in 2016, with continuous adjustments corresponding to the nature of the product consumption.

All our agriculture industries are tested from time to time. There will be these battles in monocultures. Whenever we cultivate single crops on large acreages, there will be challenges from pests and diseases.

Most of us have sung about, Big six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch…The song of the Banana Man is one of the favourite poems in the Caribbean…Praise God and this big right hand, I will live and die a banana man. Sometimes, banana suckers don’t produce big bunches. Sometimes, the Banana Man has to find other means to earn his living.

Banana has seen its bad days. In its first heyday, there were rail tracks in Stann Creek to transport the fruit to the wharf at Commerce Bight. Panama disease brought the famous Gros Michel banana to its knees in the 1950’s. But you can’t keep a good thing down. Banana fought back with a new variety, the Cavendish. Then another disease came – Sigatoka (leaf spot) disease. Again, banana fought back.

Sugar cane has faced its problems from borers and the sucking insects. The greatest challenge for the sugar cane industry, though, has come from the prices. There have been significant upturns, but there have been some serious downturns too. The low prices for sugar that reverberated across the Caribbean in the early 1980’s, led a number of countries to diversify into other industries.

Jamaica is one country that started putting its “apples” in other baskets. But they didn’t let go of the industry. Garwin Davis wrote on January 24, 2017 (http://jis.gov.jm/sugar-industry), about Jamaica’s government support for cane farmers….Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Hon. Karl Samuda, says the Government’s decision to step in and save the sugar sector is starting to reap rich dividends.

According to the Minister, sugar will contribute some US$80 million (J$10 billion) in earnings this year, a far cry from the struggling sector it was only a year ago. “We have saved an industry for the betterment of the country. God has blessed us and we are coming out on the right side. It also employs 50,000 hard-working Jamaicans,” Mr. Samuda informed.

Low sugar prices in the world led Belize to close down one of its two factories, the one in Libertad, Corozal, in 1985. You can bet that before that closure, farmers were under strain. Hard times must have influenced the 1984 election, the then Opposition UDP taking an unprecedented six of eight seats in the North that year.

Farmed shrimp, a relatively new industry, boomed, and then came under disease pressures from a virus. After a time the disease eased up, and shrimp farmers had some good years. Then the industry faced disease problems again. Shrimp farmers are still battling the present storm.

I was close enough to NOVA to know what was going on there in 2005-06. NOVA, the pioneer for shrimp farming in Belize, went into some rapid, very ambitious expansion. The simple math of that is that the farm would have increased employment for Belizeans and earned more foreign exchange. NOVA got hit with a fall in prices on the world market and a shrimp virus, simultaneously. The farm was exposed and the then PUP, Government of Belize, turned its back. My gudnis, starved for jobs and opportunities for its people, how does a government turn away? In 2008, the PUP had to go away, far! The most shocking election result, perhaps ever, came from the division where NOVA shrimp farm carried on its business. Hutchinson shocks Ralph!

In the midst of all these battles, there is the eternal ebb and flow of prices, as new producers come on stream, and as problems drive some producers to diversify into other crops, or drop out. Only those with fortitude, only nations with visionary leaders, weather the storms.

Citrus growers are resilient. They are as hardy as the plant they grow. Citrus has known its share of down times. The trouble with citrus right now, why our brothers and sisters in the industry are wary, and weary, yes, I believe it has to do with one too many failures in political leadership in too short a span.

The government took too long, way too long, to address the impasse between the Banks corporation and citrus growers. When citrus growers, as a collective, the vast majority of them, realized that they were headed in a direction they didn’t want to go, GoB should have stepped in with funds to aid them to buy out the foreign investor. It is true that governments will, should, shy away from intervention in privately-owned businesses. But while the citrus industry is privately owned, there is a Citrus Control Board, chaired by a top officer from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Another big failure of political leadership in the citrus industry came in the 1990’s, when there was a slump in citrus prices on the world market. Governments, always, always after the Holy Grail called foreign exchange, will throw money and encouragement in the direction of anyone/group, who can deliver the US dollars. Citrus farmers were encouraged to expand, and many of them did. There was a downturn in prices and many of them, especially the smaller farmers, had difficulty servicing their loans.

A confident, progressive government, knowing that good prices would come again, would have gambled on the farmers. The best government offered was a reduction in the taxes taken off fuel. This was far from sufficient. Many of the smaller growers buckled under, and sold out or abandoned their orchards. Slumping citrus prices might have influenced elections in the main citrus belt, as the people in that area voted “opposition” in back to back elections. In 1993, the Opposition UDP took both seats in Stann Creek, and in 1998 the Opposition PUP won the seats.

This present government has leaned on the SSB (Social Security Board) to assist the industry with funds, but it seemed the industry had to beg for it. It behoves the nation to stand by these industries, these foundation industries, these pillars of our economy. The present Minister of Agriculture, Godwin Hulse, must get a full grasp of the psychology of the citrus farmers at this time, and he must steer more GoB funds their way.

These farmers have been betrayed by government before. And this battle to contain and defeat “citrus greening” does not have a quick solution. Citrus is no overnight crop. An orange or grapefruit plant doesn’t come into bearing until four years, and doesn’t attain real production until six, seven, eight years. Citrus needs Belize and Belize needs citrus. There is brilliant talent in that industry, and the farmers are a hardy breed. What they need most right now is commitment from the government and people of our country. Citrus greening will be overcome. Countries that stay in the game will reap the rewards.

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