“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the cornfield.”—Former US president Dwight D Eisenhower
It's not just a few crops or a kitchen garden loss, but as explained by scientists and agricultural experts, flooding in key agricultural production areas can lead to sweeping damage to crops and fencing as well as loss of livestock. Added to that, agricultural economist, Omardath Maharaj said it is also the loss of farmer motivation, work effort, land preparation, and farm architecture, various equipment and machinery, seeds and germplasm and on-farm experiments as well as rural infrastructure (access roads, bridges, water sources, and reserves etc).
This reality often leaves farmers in a 'monkey pants' said rice farmer Richard Singh who has been supplying the grain to National Flour Mills since 2012.
Singh is one of the many farmers whose farming land was badly destroyed by the recent catastrophic flooding, caused by torrential rainfall, which brought much devastation to parts of east, south and central Trinidad.
One of the country's largest rice farmers, Singh lost near 200 acres of food production and near $3 million in harvesters, tractors, and equipment caught in the floodwaters.
He said since the floods let up on his farming lands at El Carmen, Caroni, he has spent the last days searching in hope of finding equipment washed away in the floods.
He is praying for the rains to stop, having barely recovered from the last month's flood and even floods which occurred in 2017.
“Right now I confused. I don't know what to do. We received compensation very late last year, so most farmers were forced to borrow money to keep work up and then pay it back when we finally got the compensation. So it comes like we end up with nothing. We just 'spinning top in mud,'” Singh says.
Acknowledging these floods were by far the worst, Singh, who resides in Cunupia, lamented that year in and year out, farmers are met with this crisis whenever floods occur yet there continues to be no plan by the "people in charge" to safeguard agriculture and farmers in T&T.
"Government come and government go. I don't know for what reason there is no real comprehensive plan in this country for agriculture with the support of the Prime Minister," he says.
The husband and father of three who became a farmer 30 years ago, first working with his stepfather, said as soon as his children "become of age" he will retire from farming as it's just too hard and is probably the most disrespected and disregarded profession around.
Singh: Taxpayers, govts don't care
An emotional Singh accused taxpayers of not really caring about the state of agriculture in T&T because "they were getting food anyway".
Comparing T&T to Venezuela, Singh says, “The only time they will value farmers in this country is when they cannot get the food like Venezuela. The Government there, like Trinidad, found it easier to import food and neglected to produce its own. Venezuela is rich in natural resources and the people starving."
He said the country currently imports 33,000 tonnes of rice while local farmers are barely producing a thousand tonnes. He believes this provides a golden opportunity for more rice farming in the country but said the Government was just not taking advantage of this and it was beyond his comprehension.
"Farmers have been lobbying for years, some have come and passed on and never got the chance to see agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago rise to its fullest potential. How much talk again we go talk? The more we talk, is the more they import. There is no plan and they don't care," Singh said.
Maharaj agreed with these sentiments. He said after several years of fiscal budget deficits and economic hardship, damage to the major food producing areas from flooding, dilapidated infrastructure, tenancy and other issues, it is a burden to maintain T&T's dependency on food imports coupled with food price inflation and the urgent need to return value and opportunities to rural agricultural and fishing communities.
"On many fronts, food and nutrition security remains challenged for many reasons. Some of which requires out-of-the-box thinking, awakening to the new urgency of reality and an understanding that it cannot be business as usual in T&T, especially if we seek to protect the
vulnerable among us—the men and women who literally feed the nation."
Sookoo: Rambharat's statement downright disrespectful
President of the Agricultural Society of T&T Dhano Sookoo has described as an "outright disrespect" Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat's response to the society's proposal put forward to the Agriculture Development Bank (ADB) for 'special payment arrangements' to be put in place for farmers.
Last Tuesday at a media briefing, Rambharat said the ADB already makes provision to assist farmers in times of flood. According to Rambharat, weather-related factors are taken into consideration by the bank as this would ultimately affect loan payments. But in a telephone interview with Sookoo, she said Rambharat's statement was "most disrespectful, discourteous, and insensitive".
"I want the minister to identify what programmes it has, that he is talking about. The only programme the ADB has, which is like any other programme other commercial banks have, is to refinance the loan"
Sookoo argued that when farmers have to refinance their loans at a time like this it would only continue to keep them in debt.
She said failure to assist farmers in this time of need would not only be detrimental to farmers but also the country. She explained the time it would take farmers to rebound and get back into production, most of them would have to take their savings to continue paying loans and many of them have already indicated they have no money to resume production.
"A lot of farmers lost all their equipment and we have to also remember many of these farmers lost their household items as well. All we are asking of the ADB is for a similar policy for ADB clients that was provided for HDC tenants, affected by the floods, which was announced by the Prime Minister."
On October 26 at a post-Cabinet briefing, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced two 'speedy' flood relief grants would be given to HDC tenants affected by the recent floods. One grant, the sum of $15,000 would be given for a family without children who suffered severe damage from flood waters entering their living space. While a family with children would qualify for the $20,000 grant. Government also announced a three-month moratorium on mortgage and rental payments for HDC homeowners affected by the floods.
Asked if there was any further communication by the ADB on the proposal, Sookoo said no, and she believes with Rambharat's statement, absolutely no consideration would be given to the proposal.
Minister: Farmers benefit from budget allocation called flood assistance
Unlike the "special" grant being paid to flood victims through The Ministry of Social Development and Family Services, Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat said on Friday that provision has always been made for farmers through the allocation in the budget called flood assistance.
"Last year the ministry paid out $9.7 million dollars to 6,500 farmers. Farmers received from a few hundred dollars to over $150,000 in some cases, and that was to get them back on their feet," Rambharat said.
He said the allocation was similar to that of the grants recently made available to HDC tenants affected by the floods, except there was no limit placed on this allocation as was the case with the flood relief grants that HDC tenants are currently receiving. He said the allocation was based on the type of crops under cultivation and the percentage of lots.
"So for instance, if you have ochro, there is a figure that is paid for ochro based on the cultivation undertaken and percentage of the lot. So it all depends on what is planted. A big farmer can get $40 million dollars whereas a small farmer will get a smaller amount," Rambharat explained.
Referring to the application process for the flood assistance allocation, Rambharat said farmers were all aware of and familiar with the process. He said once farmers put in their applications the ministry goes out and do its evaluation, at which payments are subsequently made.