Farmers urged to use technology as RADA copes with staff shortage
Local farmers are being asked to cling closer to their smartphones and computer screens as the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) deals with a shortage of staff and extension officers to meet their needs.
RADA officers are tasked with inspecting farmlands, assisting in the training of farmers and dissemination of vital technical information, but Lenworth Fulton, CEO of the state agency, has confessed that a shortage of staff is hampering those functions, and that RADA increasingly has to use social media to reach farmers.
"Some of that (shortage) is true. We would have a ratio of about 15,000 to 17,000 farmers to one of our extension officers. But this is so throughout the world. It is wider in some countries with wider expanse of lands," Fulton told The Sunday Gleaner.
ALTERNATIVE MEANS OF COMMUNICATION
"We are using technology to reach them. We are teaching our farmers to use text messaging, to use WhatsApp. We work with the meteorological office to send text messages to the Irish potato and tomato farmers to say when bad weather is on the horizon," he said.
"We will not have the one-to-one contact always, but we use other methods of communication to get to the farmers, and we are improving," he added, noting that the average age of farmers has dropped in recent years from 65 to 50 and, therefore, most are more appreciative of contemporary technology.
"Most of our farmers within that age cohort would have had a secondary education.
"People have a slant that people in agriculture are dunces, but some of our brightest people around the world are those who feed the people around the world," he said.
Patrick Salomon, president of the Plantain Garden River Farmers group in St Thomas, said while the social media concept seems viable, it will take some time to catch on as many of the farmers in his community do not have access to smartphones.
ASSISTING EACH OTHER
"The field officers would come around and try to get data from the farmer and give technical support, but there are not enough to work in this area," he said.
"In our area, there is only one officer, and the area he is covering ... many times for months he does not reach some of the farmers. That impacts us significantly."
He added: "What we are doing now within our group is to try and give whatever assistance, and even technical advice that we get from RADA, to some of the other communities, because many of the times, especially farmers up in the mountain, they don't see these RADA people," he said.
In the meantime, Fulton said the more than 200 extension officers continue to partner and communicate with 700 farmer groups, and also capitalise on opportunities to meet and interact with farmers at the Coronation and Brown's Town markets, among others.
Instead of expecting a visit from a RADA officer to individual farms, Fulton is urging farmers to call the RADA offices.
"Call the RADA office. There's a RADA office in every parish and there are extension offices out there, too. That call coming to our head office will be distributed to the other facilities," he said.
"Those who have children and those who have email could always email RADA and your request will be attended to. If you see a strange insect or some wilting, or something like that happening to a plant, why don't you just take a photograph of that with your phone and send that one to our office?" he said.