Agro-parks, that bastard of a programme
The Government is being accused of bastardising the agro-park programme, reducing it to nothing but irrigated tracks of lands across the island.
J.C. Hutchinson, the opposition spokesman on agriculture, made the criticism as he contributed to the Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
A ministry paper tabled by portfolio minister Derrick Kellier in Parliament, last week, notes that the agro-park initiative represents the development of agricultural land, which seeks to integrate all facets of the agriculture value chain from pre-production to production, post-harvesting and marketing.
"The tracks of lands being developed now and called agro parks are nothing more than lands that are irrigated," Hutchinson said.
He said that the Government has merely been putting in irrigation, and in some instances, farm roads and calling the initiatives agro-parks.
"If irrigation is the main focus in order to increase production, let us all who have lands around our house do some backyard farming, using the waste water from the house ... I am therefore encouraging all who have land space to create many agro-parks on their own. We will then have thousands of agro-parks to boost production, if that is an agro-park," Hutchinson said.
The opposition spokesman said that the Government does not understand how to treat with agriculture or its importance to growth in the island.
The agro-parks have a total of 396 participating farmers. The main crops include sorghum, which has to date yielded 18,880 bushels; hay, of which 7,200 bales have been produced; and onions, which have so far seen a production of 34,500 kg.
More than 1,030 persons have been employed at agro-parks. The initiative has an objective of employing 5,000 people; bringing 20,000 acres of land into production over the next five years; and the import substitution of more than 57,000 tons of produce that are normally imported.
However, according to Hutchinson, "With the fanfare about agro-parks and everybody saying crops are growing well, production fell by 4.4 per cent with all these agro-parks and it is blamed on drought."
But with $740 million spent on the agro-parks thus far, Hutchinson said that the Government has effectively turned its back on the country's 250,000 farmers at the expense of a few hundred farmers at the agro parks.
"Why are we not concentrating on bolstering the production from these 250,000 farmers? What is the stimulus, the vision or the incentive for these farmers to increase production and find a market for their produce?" he questioned.
Arguing that the 396 farmers at the agro-parks have not led to any growth in the production figures, Hutchinson said that the money could have been better spent establishing at least one real agro park, with market support for the 250,000 farmers.
"These farmers have been carrying agriculture over the years, and given the environment to market their produce, they would grow their production exponentially," he said.
"Marketing of agricultural produce is a serious problem to farmers. Whenever there is a bumper crop, at times, much of it goes to waste because of the lack of a market. Many people would go into farming, but they don't have a guaranteed market for their produce," the North West St Elizabeth member of parliament said.
Hutchinson also took issue with Kellier's comment earlier in the debate that the agro-park initiative was conceptualised by the People's National Party while in opposition between 2008 and 2011, and is being implemented on its return to power.
"How can anyone have the audacity to make such a statement? Expurgate that! He is mendacious!" Hutchinson said.