THE PLANTING of non-traditional crops in Trinidad and Tobago could create employment and also reduce the country’s food import bill. Caribbean Chemicals has partnered with the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs to plant these non-traditional crops. The company recently harvested more than 3,300 pounds of the country’s first commercially viable onion crop at the Tucker Valley Farm, Chaguanas.
Managing Director of Caribbean Chemicals, Joe Pires, said they were “putting their money where their mouth is” and investing in agriculture but at the same time not competing against the small farmer. Pires said they were constantly looking at new crops in an effort to lower the country’s food import bill. “Some crops are taken for granted, it is something that can be grown easily. It takes a strategic decision taken by companies like ourselves together with the Food Production ministry and the University of the West Indies to really start looking at these kind of crops,” Pires said.
He noted that in certain instances it can be expensive to produce certain crops but if food is grown locally food security will be guaranteed. “If a war were to occur overseas and containers can’t be brought in we would be ok because we would have some sort of food security,” he said.
There are four crops that Caribbean Chemicals together with the ministry are looking at commercially growing including onions, carrots, potatoes and peanuts. He commended Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath for having the political will to invest in agriculture. “These staples can be grown in Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados is nearly self sufficient in potatoes, Jamaica is nearly self sufficient in potatoes and carrots. All we needed to start the self sufficiency process was the political will and this current minister has the will. We are looking at import substitution, we are looking to ensure, benefit for all,” he said.
Pires insisted his company was not interested in subsidies or grants only in addressing the food security of the country. “We are not looking for any help, all we need is class land to produce these type of crops. Those class lands are owned by the state and we are encouraging the minister to look at these lands to be given out to large farms so these farms can focus on producing these non traditional crops,” he said.
Last Wednesday, approximately 30,000 onion plants in three varieties were planted in November last year. The varieties include the Mercedes, Cirrus and the Green Banner. Pires said on a per annum basis, the country currently imported $16 million worth of onions and over the last five years, Trinidad and Tobago has imported $100 million worth of onions.
Pires explained that onions need to be planted in the cooler months of the year and harvested as the dry season starts. He believes if 100 acres of onions can be planted in November, that will take care of the food import bill. “It can also lead to employment, 100 acres employs 35 people and that is sustained employment. Agriculture is not a one week job, it is a job one can have for months,” he said.
He pointed out that his company was very concerned about the over use of pesticides so they have implemented an integrated pest management system. “We used a lot of fertilisers, we concentrated on the health of a plant. Once a plant is healthy, pests won’t attack it so by utilising that method it reduces the amount of chemicals we put into the environment,” he said. A trial run of carrots was also planted at the same time with the onions but due to irrigation problems the carrot crop failed. Pires said they intend to plant another trial of carrots in four to five months.
“Planting these crops is about a number of things that benefit the country. Saving our foreign exchange, downstream industries, giving jobs to locals, growing at a competitive price, we can compete against the world. If we can save a million a year that is a lot more you can do for the country,” Pires said.