“Why did it take a pandemic for this country to be more supportive of buying local?”
This is the question award-winning farmer Curtis Carabai would like answered.
The National Youth Award recipient triumphed in the 17-29 age category of the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs’ awards in the Excellence in Agriculture category, which was presented last September at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, St Ann’s.
Carabai, 27, said he is saddened by the reason his sales have gone up by 20 per cent in the past weeks. His foodcrops include tomatoes, sweet peppers, peppers, patchoi and lettuce, produced under the Carabai Fresh Produce name, which has blossomed out of his dedication to agriculture.
“I would say covid19 has both positive and negative effects on the country’s farm industry. The positive side is that farmers have the opportunity to feed our country without having to compete with the import market, seeing that less or no imported goods would be coming into the country at this time. Also, farmers are getting more value for their produce, an example of this is tomatoes are $10 a pound compared to last year’s price which was $4 a pound around the same time,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, farmers who depend solely on the wholesale market are being adversely affected.
Farmers have not been able to get their crops sold. The advent of social distancing measures and the virtual shut down of street and roadside vendors, quantities of produce remain on their hands, leaving farmers with major losses. The closure of TT’s borders are also taking its toll on exports, hitting farmers even harder.
“Due to the new marketing and protocols that must be followed, some farmers are unable to get rid of their surplus. Moreover, there has been a drastic decrease in sales at our local markets,” Carabai added.
Feeling the pinch
Farmers who are also feeling the pinch are those whose clients are predominantly restaurants, groceries and hotels.
Carabai said a Tobago farmer said his sales had dropped by 25 per cent due to the cutbacks on weekly orders from restaurants and hotels.
Bars, restaurants and popular “liming” spots were among the first establishments to be ordered to close doors to curb the spread of covid19. Many farmers relied on sales to those establishments, he said.
Carabai, who resides in Dow Village, Oropouche, said consumers are turning mostly to the supermarkets to get fresh produce.
“My supply has increased by at least 20 per cent for the past two weeks. In addition, I have other farmers on standby in case my produce runs low and I can’t afford to supply the supermarket,” he added.
Carabai, who said he feels the pain of all farmers, advised that while the public must ensure there is adequate food at home, that supply should include produce rich in vitamin C.
“To build your immune system, consume lots of vitamin C-enriched fruits and vegetables. Produce such as oranges, grapefruits, portugals, pineapples, paw paw, watermelon, broccoli, tomatoes and sweet peppers, which are all local and can be purchased at supermarkets or home vendors.”
Mindful of the need to safeguard himself, his daughter, his girlfriend as well as customers, Carabai said he sanitises his produce with a bleach and water solution. He also sanitises his clothing, shoes and items used to conduct business and himself before he enters his home.
Passionate about gardening
Carabai said he chose farming as a career even though most farmers were between 55 and 70 years. He is determined to change that dynamic.
“My question to myself then, as a teen, was ‘who are our country’s future feeders?, seeing that most youths are pushed towards famous careers with agriculture not being one of them?’ As a youth in the sector I aim to change that.”
A former student of Fyzabad Secondary School and Siparia West Secondary, Carabai said his call to food production began in his family’s home garden.
“Growing up in a village known for large-scale farming, I was always passionate to see things grow. I was at my happiest experimenting with my dad at our small backyard garden, using it as a trial-and-error ground. Time went on and that passion turned into business and I became determined to gain pertinent knowledge on our country’s agricultural sector.”
Initially, because agriculture was not among his studies at school, his knowledge on plant nutrition and farming was limited.He recognised he needed help and reached out to a large-scale farmer.
“In order to be successful in any field you sometimes need to position yourself around persons who are already successful in that field.”
His mentor Krishna “Reds” Mahabir is considered one of the biggest farmers in his village, with more than 40 years’ experience in agriculture. Carabai learned all that he could from Mahabir.
Carabai also owns a small fishing vessel which he uses to catch fish and sell to wholesalers.
“My main objective is to make eating healthy more affordable. To make our agricultural sector be viewed as one of our most important sector. To see our country feed itself, by having produce grown here and consumed here rather than that same produce being imported. My main objective is to create sustainable agriculture, and this can only be done by youths getting involved.”
Time management, he said, has often been a challenge for him, more so since he became a father. He wants his daughter, or any young person, to appreciate outdoor activities, sustainable living and food security.
A lucrative career choice youth?
For Carabai, who is also pursuing an emergency medical technician course, young people must have a passion to grow food and work hard if they want to be a successful farmer.
“Farming is a field you don’t want to go into thinking that farmers make a lot of money because they sometimes lose more then they make, as my mentor always says, ‘we plant crops we don’t plant price.’ So after a farmer invest $10,000 in a crop of tomatoes, he has to pray that he catch the market with a good price to make back his investment and profits. And that’s where the love for what you do comes in, that even if you make money or not it still wouldn’t discourage you. And of course, it have the good times where they actually make money at the markets. It’s a field you must first develop the love for before getting into.”
As for what’s on the horizon, Carabai plans to form a network of young farmers and help make TT a regional leader in agriculture.