Thumbs up for agriculture programmes for youths

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

File photo/Angelo Marcelle

The Government allocated $1.442 billion to the agriculture sector for the financial year 2023-2024, representing an increase of $112 million compared to the previous allocation of $1.330 billion.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert made the announcement when he presented the budget in Parliament on Monday.

In addition to this allocation to the Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Ministry, Imbert allocated a further $400 million to the sector, comprising $250 million in incentives to farmers and $150 million for infrastructure development through Palo Seco Agricultural Enterprises Ltd (PSAEL).

He also proposed to allocate $7.5 million to establish community gardens and green-market projects.

Giving his take on the presentation, Mark Wuddivira, professor and dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at UWI, said it was an improved budget compared to last year’s.

Wuddivira noted that the sector contributed less than two per cent of gross domestic product over the last five years, which he called “very concerning.” He added that the rising food import bill is unsustainable for any economy.

“If we want to stimulate local agriculture, then what is imported should not be cheaper than what the farmers produce locally. That is what is happening.

“Something must be done to encourage what is being produced locally. That can only be done not just through politics, but though legislation,” he said.

Wuddiviria said he appreciated the Government’s efforts in encouraging youths in agriculture. He recalled that 100 students benefited from agriculture programmes in the faculty in the last academic year.

“It is very welcome. The agriculture population is aging, and we need to bring in technology to stimulate our young people to see the value of agriculture,” he said. “We hope that as we move forward, we will start to see the impact of engaging the youths in agriculture.”

In the budget, Imbert said within the past three years, the Government had made various programmes available to young people interested in the agricultural sector.

These included the Youth Agricultural Homestead Programme, the Youth Agricultural Shade House Project, and the Youth Aquaculture Project.

This year’s budget theme is “Building capacity for diversification and growth.”

President of the Agricultural Society of TT (ASTT) Daryl Rampersad gave mixed views, saying some of the things indicated in the budget were repeated from last year’s.

Rampersad added, “He mentioned $150 million for agriculture infrastructure improvements that will go through Palo Seco Agricultural Enterprises Ltd. That one is where we have a question about how responsibility was given to that organisation. How is it going to work?”

But he too welcomed the initiatives for youth in the sector, saying they were commendable.

“On the other hand, he spoke about leases, and yet still, we have farmers waiting 20 and 30 years to receive theirs. This is something that really needs to be addressed firstly, starting from the issue of leases if we have to go forward,” Rampersad said. “Year after year, government after government, budget after budget, land tenure is still a major issue affecting agriculture.”

Private pilot and part-time farmer Christopher Ramoutar described the presentation as encouraging.

Ramoutar said Imbert demonstrated the importance of and commitment to the farmers with the additional $400 million in incentives and the Praedial Larceny Squad (PLS) revitalisation.

“The PLS has been dormant for some time, and I hope to see that revived and expanded as he mentioned.

“His take on rejuvenating the sector was also encouraging in terms of having programmes to encourage youths to do agriculture. Studies have shown that most people doing agriculture are on the aging side,” Ramoutar said.

“He also mentioned using fresh fruits and vegetables as a priority in the schools feeding programme. That would be a great aspect for farmers.”

Livestock farmer Shiraz Khan said listening to the presentation was painful and “nothing was done” for the sector.

The ex-president of the Unified Farmers Association said while the minister is encouraging youths in the sector, land tenure remains a major ongoing issue.

He accused Imbert of making false promises.

Khan added: “The cost of living is increasing. The prices for feed, chemicals, fertilisers and animal medication are increasing. Foreign-exchange issues play a part in this too.”