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Saturday, July 11, 2020
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Save foreign exchange: produce our own milk

I haven’t collected all the data on dairy possibilities in Belize, but I have enough information to ask, what are we waiting for? We don’t have the foreign exchange, definitely not enough to buy goods that we can produce for ourselves. Anyone who thinks that our economy is performing swimmingly must have failed to notice that we just gave out the fattest offer you can find anywhere in the world to try and corral US$30 million.

Anyone who read Mr. Brian Plummer’s latest contribution to the Amandala will have the sense of what is going on with our money. Mr. Plummer, who uses his excellent knowledge of economics to forecast what will happen in the world of politics and finance, and to offer solutions so that we don’t stay da back, explained that because of the recession and travel restrictions, we can’t expect a big bounce back from tourism anytime soon, so, among other things, we will have to invest more in agriculture, and to do that will call for “negotiating with importers who are usually campaign contributors.”

Campaign contributors — I am pretty certain we all know who they are. Around 1998 or so, there was talk about Belize starting to produce its own condensed milk, and the company that was going to step forward was the Bowen group.

Yes, if my wires are correct the Bowen group was going to step up, but the story fizzled. Don’t give that quizzical look, as Barrow does when he wants to pretend as if he doesn’t know all the wickedness the people in his party are up to. There’s no condensed milk in the grocery stores carrying the label, “Made in Belize.” I don’t have the conduit to the people —the campaign financiers, whom we would have to question to find out why we don’t have sweet milk, but I can tell you who they are. Their names are Bowen, San Cas, and Brodies; they are the ones with the facts, and the accounts to invest.

I haven’t yet gotten the data on present imports (I will have that information in the next segment of this milk story), but this report produced by the Belize Development Trust in 2000, “Belize Milk and Dairy Industry still having growing pains after 20 years” (credits also to the website ambergriscaye.com where I found the story) says that back then, in the year 2000, we were importing $17 to $20 million worth of dairy products and producing between $2 and $3 million worth of dairy products ourselves. Our population has grown from 247,000 in 2000 to almost 400,000 in 2020, and the price of everything we import has gone up, so we are pretty sure that we’re spending $30 million plus on dairy products now, easily.

That Belize Development Trust report cited lack of electricity in rural areas as a major constraint to a milk industry in 2000. The report also cited poor road infrastructure, and also lawlessness as constraints. The report said: “Cattle rustlers are also a plague. When they make a midnight raid and butcher a producing Holstein dairy cow worth a $100,000 to sell to town butchers as raw meat, worth only a few hundred dollars, it is a real financial setback to the dairy industry.”

H.R. Clifford, in a 1981 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) report for our Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, said that at that time we had 50,000 head of mostly cross-bred cattle grazing on 100,000 acres of pasture “under low management conditions.” Clifford’s report said: “The CARICOM Secretariat Feasibility Study on Milk Production and Processing proposes to reduce imports of processed milk through increased production of milk from small farmers and two commercial dairy farms.” Clifford said he recommended our dairy herd be based on cross-breeds, Holstein-Friesian crossed with Zebu (Brahman), and Ayrshire crossed with Zebu (Brahman).

Moving on to what’s happening in dairy in Belize at this time, which means production by the Mennonite community because the rest of Belize is near nada, zilch production, the World Data Atlas, knoema.com, said that Belize produced 4,994 tons of milk in 2018, up from 4,785 tons in 2017. That puts our annual production at less than 10 million pounds annually. The Mennonites say that they can expand dairy production to 15 million pounds per year (15 million pounds is the figure I got – there are 8.6 pounds of fresh milk in a gallon), but they have confined themselves to fresh milk, cheese, cream, and their famous Western Dairies ice cream.

The website, knoema.com, said that in 2018 Costa Rica produced 1.16 million tons of milk; Honduras, 691,000 tons; Nicaragua, 594,000 tons; Guatemala, 492,000 tons; El Salvador, 322,000 tons; and Panama, 208,000 tons. We definitely are not keeping pace with our neighbors.

The 2016 annual report for the Belize Livestock Producers Association (BLPA) puts our total herd at 111,000 heads, of which 8,254 were Brown Swiss and 6,060 were Holstein, two dairy breeds. The BLPA tagged the Brahman herd at 53,000 and the Nelore herd at 32,000. The Brahman and the Nelore are both of the Zebu breed, so all the stock is here to produce the cross-breeds proposed by Mr. Clifford of the FAO, if we want to expand into dairy.

Belize wouldn’t want to go crazy with beef and dairy, because we love our forests too much, but there’s an advantage these two industries have over our other agro-industries that we mustn’t ignore. Our livestock industries are far less dependent on foreign exchange than citrus, sugarcane, and banana. The only things we have to import annually to keep our livestock healthy and productive are some veterinary products, and small amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. Livestock eat grass and protein-rich leguminous plants. Dairy cattle need some supplemental feed, but most of that we can make in Belize.

If the government had the will, we could be self-sufficient in milk in less than five years. The top producer of milk in the Caribbean in 2018 was Jamaica, with a little over 13,000 pounds, so there is a clear path for Belize, after supplying all its needs, to export its excess to the Caribbean.

Some years ago, when Salvadorans escaping their Civil War came to Belize and went to live in Valley of Peace, many of the families had milk cows. There wasn’t much electricity in the village then, so the production was either consumed fresh or turned into cheese. My colega, Raul Hernandez, said there were programs sponsored by the Belize Government and the United Nations that assisted many families with a milk cow. When the cows calved, the calf, if it was a heifer, went to a family that didn’t have a cow, and the program was to go on until all families in the village had their cow. Raul said that for various reasons the program faded out, which resulted in villagers in Valley of Peace buying milk from the shop, like most of us.

Electricity is no longer a problem in the villages in our country, so everyone that has 5 or more acres can have a couple cows. A government collection agent can pick up the milk each morning and take it to the processing site. This will generate some nice supplemental income for villagers all across the country.

If the government had the will, we could make our own condensed milk. We already have one of the two ingredients, sugar, tons of it. The government could also invest in factories to make UHT milk, so we can have our own Lala, and evap. UHT has been around for some time, but in Belize we only use it to process juices at the CPBL factory.

We cannot forget all the things you can make out of a cow after it has passed its productive age. There is leather for bags, belts, shoes, and hats, and there are hooves for glue, and hair for brushes, and lots of other things. Ah, instead of spending foreign exchange, we’ll be winning foreign exchange.

All these things we can do if our government had the will. The local economists that Bill Lindo warned us about, the ones who were taught in school that you import goods that other countries can produce cheaper than you can, they will just have to find their way back to school, to be deprogrammed. Dairy breeds will never be as productive in the tropics as they are in temperate regions, but there are countries in Central America that have shown that we can produce enough to be viable. We don’t have a choice. We noh have the foreign exchange.

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