Over the last three decades the population of our traditional small farmers has been contracting, except in some areas of the Toledo District where visionary leaders insisted that they would not expose themselves to competition that had far greater financial resources and more modern agricultural technology.
The first sign that small sugarcane farmers were endangered was the closing down of the factory at Libertad in the mid-1980s. There was some talk about ethanol production, but that never came to anything. The closing down of the factory was a clear indication that the government wasn’t supportive of more sugarcane production in that district.
The lax laws in the country caused many small cattle ranchers to drop out of business. The big ranchers can afford security to patrol their fences every night, but the small ranchers can’t, so they are vulnerable. Cattle rustlers discouraged them, and some gave in, quit in frustration. In the Belize River Valley, and in the Cayo District there are a number of small pastures that are overgrown with shrubs, and the only evidence that the land was once productive are a few posts that still stand, and scattered strands of barbed wire.
Rice was supposed to be a crop exclusively for small farmers. The high-tech, fully mechanized operators were supposed to sell their produce abroad, not on the local market, but when they found that the local market paid better, and the government didn’t care to protect small growers, they swamped the market and drove out the small producers.
A devastating disease, citrus greening, hit the citrus industry at a time when the industry was going through some serious internal struggles. We cannot say that Belize’s governments have been sterling in steering the industry through its political problems.
The citrus industry has never experienced a disease as tough to combat as citrus greening. The production of citrus, heretofore, was generally basic weed control, fertilizing, pruning, and plant selection. The groves were affected minimally by insect pests and plant diseases. When citrus greening came there was no blueprint for farmers, no package of measures to grow citrus successfully anymore.
In a few short years the production on Belize’s near 50,000 acres of groves was halved, from an average of 7 million boxes to less than 3.5 million boxes. The disease has affected citrus worldwide. Reduced production in the world caused an increase of prices for the product on the world market, and this has reduced the pain, helped to buffer the devastating loss in fruit production.
The bigger farmers, with their bigger inputs, have suffered greater losses, but it is the small farmers who are crumbling under the citrus greening attack. They cannot hold out because they cannot make the investments needed to stay in the industry.
The citrus industry needs the big farmers — I must pause here to acknowledge the passing of a citrus giant, Mr. William Bowman. Respect to Mr. Bowman, and condolences to his family. The big farmers are better able to do what is necessary to keep going, to survive, and later to thrive.
Belize absolutely needs the small growers, for one, because they can’t all find employment with the big growers, and two, because what would Belize be without independent voices? We wouldn’t be Belize anymore.
It took some time for the citrus industry to find the path forward. The new, hopeful management practices that were first introduced don’t look too promising. Thousands of the new plants aren’t doing so well. An expert in the industry explained that more than 50% of the two and three-year-old trees already show signs of being infected with citrus greening.
Citrus trees don’t start bearing until they are four or five years old and full production doesn’t begin until trees are eight plus years old. These thousands of young trees will not deliver sufficiently to reenergize the industry.
Mr. Manuel Garcia, an agronomist at CREI (Citrus Research and Educational Institute) said they have found that the practice of inter-planting in old groves isn’t working, that the way forward is to plant entirely new groves. So, farmers have to bite the bullet and bulldoze/cut down all marginal orchards, or find new land to plant on. Many smaller growers can’t afford to cut down trees that are still bearing, and they don’t have the funds to start afresh.
The industry is also starting afresh with