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By Orville Williams

Farmers across the nation are being urged by the Ministry of Agriculture to make the necessary preparations in their operations, amid what is forecast to be a busy Atlantic hurricane season.

Natural disasters often destroy vital crops and lands which affects livelihoods and threatens food security. The latter is of particular importance at the moment as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to put a strain on resources.

Speaking to Observer yesterday, acting director of agriculture, Gregory Bailey, said the ministry does have protocols in place to deal with the threat of natural disasters and disclosed the advice being given to farmers.

“Specifically, regarding hurricanes, we generally advise the farmers to pay attention to the meteorological updates and once there’s a pending disaster where hurricanes are concerned, we have certain protocols that we adhere to,” he said.

“These protocols involve essentially securing life and limb in the first instance and the economic assets [second], so that they can recover post-disaster.

“For the crop farmers, once there’s a pending disaster, we generally advise them to assess their enterprise and see to what extent they can reap what can be reaped and stored in advance of the pending [disaster].

“Also, way in advance, we advise them to keep planting material at hand, so they are in a position to recuperate almost immediately after the storm would have passed,” Bailey explained.   

Regarding the possibility of crops weathering the storm, Bailey says some are better placed than others to survive certain hurricane conditions. This is a give-and-take situation though, as those crops still have weaknesses, despite their notable strengths.

“Almost all plants are susceptible, but generally speaking, we recommend the plants that have a stronger root system for these types of disasters. So, your leafy vegetables and so forth, we recommend that you put those in containers so they can be relocated relatively easily. [Crops] like cassava, carrots [and] beets, they can generally survive the wind.

“The problem that some farmers have in some areas, depending on the soil type – if it’s heavy clay and you get floods and persistent waterlogging – the root crops find themselves in problems. So, while they can mitigate high winds, they are susceptible to waterlogging conditions,” he says.

While significant focus will be placed on the risk of hurricanes as the season develops, Bailey adds that there is one natural disaster farmers are already battling.

“If you notice – and it’s not peculiar to Antigua alone – some of the Caribbean, especially the Leeward Islands, we tend to suffer from droughts at the beginning of the hurricane season and then suffer from flooding conditions at the back end of the season. So, the disaster that we’re looking at is not just limited to hurricanes.

“Drought is in itself a disaster, so we are putting measures in place to educate famers [on] ways and means they can actually conserve water directly and [also] indirectly, to the extent that they can scale down production in an effort to ensure that they have consistent cashflow,” he added.

Meanwhile, crop farming is certainly not the only aspect of agriculture that is impacted by natural disasters, with livestock farming also facing the threat.

Veterinary officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Nneka Hull James, stressed the need for thorough preparation in minimising the risk from hurricanes. Along with securing the necessary resources like water, feed and medicine beforehand, Dr Hull James says it is also important to keep up-to-date records of livestock.

“Assess the animals and have records of what species you have, the numbers…know exactly how many animals you have on your farm. Be aware of exactly what your stocking densities are, so that in the event of a disaster and any loss of life, you’re able to accurately assess what you have lost if you’ve lost any – and that type of thing,” she explained.

The impact on the agriculture sector from hurricanes and other natural disasters is often unpredictable and Bailey says the industry is based on risk, but assured that the ministry would be doing its part to help farmers prepare as best as possible.

“A lot of times, when we get the hurricane warnings or hurricane watches, we don’t know if it’s coming with a lot of water or if it’s just pure wind. Farming is always a risky business, but we try to mitigate as much as possible to minimise the risks,” he concluded.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30.

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