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Making money from the ground

Thursday, February 22, 2018

T&T’s agricultural sector seems to be undergoing somewhat of a cultural renaissance as of late.

From the various “green markets” to the assortment of artisanal products that have emerged recently, there appears to be somewhat of a groundswell taking place in the industry.

This is all good news, and should be encouraged. But here’s an interesting statistic: agriculture’s contribution to T&T’s GDP is 0.4 per cent.

By some measure, for years, the agricultural sector has been one of the most touted (not unlike its counterpart, tourism) yet one of the most underachieving at the same time (again, not unlike tourism).

Many an administration have “talked up” their ability to transform the sector yet, for all intents and purposes, agriculture in T&T remains a laggard.

Truthfully, what makes agriculture’s sub-par performance as a contributor to T&T’s economy even more perplexing is the fact that, for a country that seems to be blessed with all the ingredients to bake the perfect agricultural cake, (land, sunlight, and massive fertiliser plants in Pt Lisas) we just can’t seem to get it right coming out of the oven.

Further, in some respects, wealth born from other industries has made being successful in the agricultural sector less of a priority.

Our paltry agri-product exports attest to this. That a country with a population of roughly 1.3 million people could have a food import bill in excess of $5 billion (as at 2016) speaks volumes about the level of concern for domestic production.

While many will link agriculture’s almost invisible contribution to the economy to capital access or even the trickle of government incentives flowing to the sector (all legitimate concerns), there seem to be deeper issues that warrant attention to really move the industry forward.

In fact, seldom is it the case of issues operating in isolation that cause something as wide (and important) as agriculture to be such an underachiever. It is oftentimes an overlap and interplay of issues that stymies progress.

A clear point of concern for the industry appears to be the weak link between ongoing research and the actual farmers who it is supposed to benefit. While there are academic institutions (often grant-funded by foreign organisations) engaged in research into various arms of the agricultural industry, much of this data simply does not trickle down to farmers for their commercial use.

Therein lies the paradox: beneficial information not necessarily accessible by, or shared with an industry that invariably needs it to improve and quite frankly, make a much stronger economic contribution. It appears that research into the agricultural sectors is more focused on knowledge-aggregation rather than knowledge-sharing per se.

In The Netherlands for example, its internationally heralded Wageningen University and Research Centre has developed strong links with the business community interested in farming and agriculture.

Through such action, it has made the Netherlands one of the epicentres of commercial agricultural development in the world. (There’s a saying in agri-circles that goes “if it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much”).

Perhaps the time has come for more of a collaborative approach between our institutions and our farmers than a divided one.

Additionally, the way farming is approached in T&T is also in dire need of some revision. In large measure, it is perhaps time for those engaged in agriculture to view themselves are manufacturers rather than farmers. After all, they are in the business of manufacturing agricultural output, aren’t they?

Put differently, our farmers should operate with the same laser-like precision, attention to detail, and focus on the bottom line as many of the nation’s best industrialists do.

One would be hard-pressed to find a farmer with copious records of his activity or, for that matter, audited financial statements—all hallmarks of a serious enterprise. Shifting this traditional mindset means, quite simply, running farming as any modern day corporation. It may sound daunting, but truthfully, this is the way our industry has to go for it to reach any point of sustainability.

Only when farmers begin to view themselves in this way can a more analytic approach be taken in an industry that desperately needs to attract young talent, capital and modern technology.

Ultimately, fostering food security that is both profitable and sustainable should be what the business of agriculture is all about. Everyone benefits when this is achieved.

Andre Worrell


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