Sugar Farmers’ Livelihood in Danger

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Updated: March 28, 2017

The Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute, SIRDI, a key stakeholder in the sugar industry conducted a study on the nutrients found in the soil across the sugar belt and presented the alarming findings to sugar cane farmers today in an all day “sugar cane nutrients symposium” at the headquarters located along the Philip Goldson Highway in the Corozal District. Using soil maps of the entire sugar belt that were created in a previous soil study conducted in 2009 to 2011, SIRDI conducted a soil survey in 25 areas across the sugar belt. Samples of soil and leaves were sent to the US for studies. Ruben Ortiz, a sugar cane nutrition consultant from Costa Rica was part of the research and says the results show a highly nutrient deficient soil.

RUBEN ORTIZ

“Those results are unfortunately not good. Belize has been blessed with very good soil in the northern part of Belize for many years but after so many years of continuous cultivation of sugar cane all the nutrients have been depleted most of them and now is the time we need to replace those nutrients and it is the time that we need to apply fertilizer to obtain higher yields. It is the time that we need to come and apply the correct amount of fertilizer at the right time and do that, if the industry doesn’t do that, if the growers don’t do that definitely the yields will continue dropping and it will be very difficult to produce sugar cane in the future.”

Ortiz adds that potassium reserves are depleted in the soil across the sugar belt as all samples yielded basically the same results. One factor that has contributed to the loss in nutrients is the continuous practice of burning cane fields before and after harvest. Another recommendation is the elimination of this practice. Ortiz also stresses the need for all industry stakeholders to work together.

RUBEN ORTIZ

“I believe everybody all the participants in the industry have to work together, the three sugar cane farmers associations, the sugar cane boards, SIRDI from all the technical recommendations from SIRDI for the farmers to follow the technical recommendations and of course the farmers they all have to work together to save the industry because the situation as I mentioned before is very critical, it really needs to improve the nutrition of the sugar cane here in Belize and also some more technical recommendations I can provide to the farmers are like never apply fertilizer when the soil is dry, if they harvest or you harvest your crop in the dry season just wait until the rain comes and apply fertilizer but never apply to dry soil and that is one thing, the other thing is to try to incorporate the fertilizer with machinery into the soil that will make the fertilizer a lot more efficient and also apply the fertilizer if it is manual then apply it on the planting row.”

Although stakeholders have, over the years, known that a limiting factor in sugar cane production is poor soil and plant nutrition as a result of decades of production, the findings now show that this is now a critical situation in the sugar industry. Still, if farmers are willing to follow the recommendations provided, another limiting factor comes to the forefront – finance.

RUBEN ORTIZ

“Presently we have a sugar cane replanting program which is a loans program at the best credit program for cane farming but one of the problems there is that its only for replanting and two years ago we managed to convince the EU to also open it to routine maintenance but it’s unfortunate that the farmers have not been able to access the funding because of the criteria’s but more so because of the farmers indebtedness to the commercial banks. So for them to be able to access a loan from program they need to move away completely from the commercial bank but the program does not have refinancing so that is a limiting element in accessing the funds. Unfortunately I must say a very unfortunate thing is that we still have about $10 million dollars in that fund and the fund expires in April of next year so all we have is from now until April next year to use the funds and we are hopeful that the farmers do something to be able to access the funds more so because whatever we use from the fund will remain as a revolving fund for the sugar industry which we will so need as of starting next year when the forecast is that prices will decline some estimates are saying that by 24% to 30% so we will need that fund or farmers will have to go back to the commercial banks and there is no way at those high rates that farmers will be able to survive.”

The study was financed by the European Union.