Christopher Serju, Contributor
I had dismissed as not even a good joke Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke's announcement of the Government's intention of looking into corn production as a means of reducing Jamaica's huge import bill. That was until I read online a story published by The Gleaner on Friday, November 16 and realised he had taken the joke too far.
In the article headlined 'Jamaica Broilers Group corn project revolutionary - Clarke', the agriculture minister says: "What I have seen here today is revolutionary as far as corn production in this country is concerned ... ." He then goes on to announce partnering with the group on this initiative.
I find it remarkable that the minister could make such a commitment on the basis of one trial run, while other proven agricultural endeavours continue to wilt for lack of state support. Comments attributed to Jamaica Broilers Group executives are telling more for what they do not say.
Project manager Norman Williams declared, "At this point, we are testing a variety of corn in order to ascertain the type with the highest yield which can be grown cost effectively."
In another story carried on the broadsheet publication the following day, Conley Salmon, president for marketing - feeds and agricultural supplies, made this astonishing admission: "It could have been an absolute disaster. We didn't know what we were doing the first time round ... the fellows from Brazil think we have done fairly well." The story goes on to say that while Salmon was unable to provide comparative figures in terms of the yield, he was pleased with the outcome.
I am yet to find a kernel of common sense in using this one-off operation as justification for going full-scale into corn production as a practical approach to cutting the significant foreign-exchange input in locally produced animal feed. What is it that makes corn production, at this time, more lucrative than West Indian Sea Island, a crop which for more than a decade Vitus Evans, CEO of the Jamaica Agricultural Development Foundation (JADF), has been trying to promote for years? Last time I checked, the price was US$10.50 per pound on the world market, compared to the US$2 per pound for other elite brands of cotton from around the globe.
Then there is this definitive statement by Dr Fred Hanley published in The Gleaner on September 8 last year, when I asked him about the practicality of cultivating corn or soya bean to offset the high cost of imported animal-feed input, which accounts for as much as 97 per cent of the ingredients.
"Unrealistic. In my opinion, it is unrealistic at this time," he declared. "Quite frankly, producing the kind of volume using locally grown corn and/or soya bean meal we need to make the feeds here would not be feasible under the present structure of acreage that's available."
Just how much land would be required to make this a practical option? "Hundreds of thousands of acres," according to Dr Hanley. Despite this, based on what it describes as a successful business model for its poultry operations, Jamaica Broilers plans to contract farmers to grow corn for its production of animal feed under the Hi-Pro brand.
At the time of writing this article (Thursday), Dr Hanley, PhD, was still employed in the capacity of technical research/development manager at the Hi-Pro feed mill in Old Harbour, a subsidiary of the Jamaica Broilers Group. The facility produces 235,000-240,000 tonnes of animal feed each year, about 110,000 tonnes of which is used in its own poultry and fish operations.
While admitting that finding local substitute ingredients makes sense, in theory, he noted that the required economies of scale in this case would make it impractical. Said he: "The corn coming out of the United States is from millions of acres, and that puts a cost to it that's lower than what we could manage to compete with here, were we to try and do it, even as high as the cost seems."
Even with the climbing cost of oil and corn on the international market, coupled with the impact of a sliding local dollar, have the dynamics of that equation changed so much as to invalidate Dr Hanley's definitive statement? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, none of which the group has made public, I am inclined to believe that his perspective, then, still holds true.
So while the optimism about positive economic spin-offs touted by Jamaica Broilers makes for good public relations, it flies in the face of the facts, coming from one of its senior executives. For this reason, I humbly submit that Minister Clarke instead direct state resources and his attention to other agricultural matters in more urgent need of attention.
Egg farmers are still being crushed under the weight of the general consumption tax which threatens to destroy the industry. Dairy farmers, egg producers and farmers who produce raw material for the juice component of the School Feeding Programme are still waiting for the years-old kinks to be worked out, which would see them supplying the project on a consistent basis and getting paid in good time. The concerns about the potentially devastating impact of measures contained in the White Paper on tax reform are still valid. So are the land-tenure issues raised by farmers in Bodles and Thetford, both in St Catherine, with the inconsistency on which agricultural waivers are granted also high on the agenda.
If there is one portfolio that demands that you walk the walk and for which success can be measured in a practical way, it is agriculture. But for too long we have talked the talk, very often making a lot of noise but no sense. Renowned cattle geneticist Dr Karl Wellington put it well, advice that I would share with our many technocrats: "One cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind."
Unfortunately, for many in the know, that is a lesson yet to be learned, as evidenced by the many instances in Jamaica's agriculture of placing the cart before the horse even when we don't have a cart or horse.
In this case, I can't help but wonder, "Is the minister being taken for a ride, or is he taking his farming constituents for a ride?" Whatever the truth, somebody's riding for a fall, and battered and bruised as they are in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, next time around, our farmers may not respond so well to the ministrations of the king's men or his horses.
Christopher Serju is a rural and and agricultural affairs reporter. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.