Editorial: Feast or famine

Recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Barbuda Affairs, Dean Jonas, highlighted the need for a sound marketing plan if the agriculture industry and all stakeholders in Antigua and Barbuda are to receive more meaningful benefits.  He said that he has made the development of a marketing plan a top agenda item after discovering that none existed when he came to office earlier this year.

During a recent meeting with key agriculture personnel and representatives from the farming community, the minister advised the community to “establish and ensure that there is a market for the crops you plant.”  This raises a much larger issue that we believe goes beyond the marketing plans and more towards the master plan for agriculture. How do we ensure that we are making efficient use of our limited resources in the face of obvious challenges?

The meeting touched on the employment of post-harvest production techniques to avoid wasting produce during periods of glut, and this, in our minds, is key to the economic viability of any farmer.  Right now, farmers produce a glut of produce at harvest that results in serious wastage. Take mangoes for example. During mango season, more mangoes go to waste than we are able to consume. Talk to a mango farmer and he will tell you that there just is not enough local consumption to absorb the quantum produced by the trees in their fields.  Beyond that, there are not viable trade routes and regulations to support the export of the fruit to places that can utilise the excess. So, other than squishing the fruit beneath their feet, what are the farmers to do?

Well, one answer is to process the fruit for later consumption.  Obviously, we cannot preserve mangoes in pristine condition to eat out-of-season.  That would be ideal! Who wouldn’t want to eat a juicy, succulent mango at Christmas, for example?  Unfortunately, that technology does not exist, or if it does, it is very likely too pricey and too impractical.  What exists today is the processing of slices and pulp for the global food industry.

If your first reaction is that, it is hard to think that we can compete with a country like India that produces over 16 million tons of mangoes every year and commands over 40 percent of the global market. And you are right! But this is where niche marketing comes into play. Caribbean mangoes have a cachet, and that is something that we can exploit with a well-thought-out and executed plan as the Minister has suggested. North Americans, in particular, like to know that their smoothies and mango salsa chicken are made with Caribbean mangoes. As strange as that sounds, it is true.  Eating is an emotional experience and can bring back memories or invoke fantasies. Who does not want to be transported to the Caribbean whilst slurping on an Antiguan mango smoothie in one’s favourite restaurant or whilst poolside at home?

This brings us back to the equipment necessary to make this a reality; or more accurately, the financing of the equipment to make this a reality.  In general, we do not have farms large enough to make the investment in processing equipment independently, so the solution will be either for the government to back a produce processing plant or for the farmers to create a cooperative that will get it done … or a combination of the two.  

We are not in the industry, but we have to believe that there is some type of funding to assist in this type of development.  Maybe some friendly nation would be willing to provide the equipment and expertise as aid. We know that this seems like we are begging again, but at least in this case, we are not begging for a fish, but rather asking to be taught how to fish.  

Minister Jonas has been at the centre of quite a bit of controversy recently, but he deserves praise for realising that the efficiency of our harvests are not maximised, and taking steps to put a solution to this issue at the top of his priority list.  As we have said before, Jonas is a focused individual and we are confident that he will work diligently at the task at hand. We certainly wish him luck because this is a massive undertaking. At the same time, it will be extremely rewarding. A master plan for agriculture is long overdue, and we hope that this latest effort will yield the results that are desired by everyone.

Agriculture, both livestock and produce farming, is the key to food security and can be a significant contributor towards our economy if managed correctly and supported by all the stakeholders.  Let us hope that “all hands are to the plough!”

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