Supply and demand of Barbados agriculture produce

One of the projects I am tasked with for what is now ending up only being 3 months in Barbados, is a marketing plan for the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS) and its commodity groups. I feel I have sufficient experience to put this together because of my previous background with my jaunt into the small scale farming world, where I received small business training, attended farmers markets, marketed my own products, developed promotional materials, as well as from my activist training where I would organize various campaigns and events, engaging the public, distributing information materials and working to educate others about important social issues. More recently was the marketing plan I created for the network of organic farmers markets in Lima.

Fortunately, I am able to essentially use some documents as templates which are far less time consuming to modify than to create a plan from scratch. I always feel there is no sense wasting time and effort in effect reinventing the wheel where experienced folks have created such work which is shared and can be adapted to one’s particular purpose.

BAS is currently comprised of seven (7) commodity groups, of which two are dormant – cotton (Barbados has this stuff called sea island cotton which is deemed to be superior in quality, but the raw materials are sent overseas to Europe for processing, cloth coming back to the island nation and then clothing made from it) & flowers – the other 5 being sheep & goat, beef & dairy, eggs & poultry, pig, and fruit and vegetables (F&V). There is also an apiary group but fledgling/embryonic at this time. Barbados is more or less food security with its eggs & chickens (one reason being a restriction on importing such goods), and pigs (there is still substantial room to increase the production). As for dairy, they imported close to 200 heifers and calves from the U.S. in 2016 at a cost of more than a million in order to increase the breeding stock. There is also sufficient goat & sheep but some is still imported from New Zealand.

Aside note on milk: At the largest grocery store chain, it is actually possible to purchase unpasteurized milk from a small dairy, not the large national dairy company, and it substantially cheaper than the pasteurized. We were thrilled. As for cheese, I do believe most of it is imported, from the U.S. or New Zealand or UK for example, and I have to say the prices are reasonable for a good quality cheddar. They have no such thing as coffee cream with fat content ranging from 5-18%, so we make do with one liter tetra packs of evaporated milk.

Now back to fruit and veg. Well – that’s another story. I recently learned that 90% of fruit is imported and 50% of vegetables are imported, from the latest data The fruit stat was shocking. I mean this is a tropical island where you would think tropical fruit abounds. In the history of agriculture here, sugar cane dominated for decades. It has only been in the past few decades, and since independence that there has been a move away from sugar (I had also learned that due to a sugar subsidy introduced some years ago, it saw to the collapse of the sugar industry – not sure about the details on that one). Sugar cane is still an industry (there are lots and lots of rum producers – it can be cheaper to drink rum than beer) but at many such plantations there is crop rotation practiced and thus diversification where they grow veg & fruit in some areas letting the fields rest from the sugar cane planting as this plant robs the soil of nutrients. Other plantations have switched over completely, e.g. one focuses on sweet potato production.

It turns out the coral soil, that is not a lot of soil but more coral rock, is not the best for growing much let alone fruit, however there have also been various diseases & pests that have wiped out certain fruit crops over the more recent years, e.g. citrus & papaya, when some farmers actually dabbled in fruit crops. I always have to wonder how monoculture cropping fits into this, not practicing organic or permaculture or biodynamics, but instead relying on toxic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides which upset the natural balance of the microbial elements in the soil and of the necessary insects.

I am finding that if you want local fruit as this does exist, you go to the stands of those selling a variety of their own home grown produce where there is a good mix of fruits and vegetables, more so the latter but still some of the former, e.g. papaya, bananas -sweet & plantains, pineapple, this huge grapefruit looking thing called a pomelo, mangoes, all available depending on the season. We have been thoroughly enjoying papaya, with very good flavour, unlike the ones we consumed in Peru which would have been produced using industrial agriculture methods.

Have yet to try coconut water. At a street corner, a somewhat major intersection were some coconut water sellers but they have disappeared. Not sure if a question of supply. It happens that there is a burgeoning market in this but once again it seems that supply cannot meet demand (see below) and so a company imported a large quantity from Guyana, and certain folks, e.g. the CEO of BAS complained.

Mr.C5 & I recently had the opportunity to visit a few farmers’ markets (FM) and farms. As I have mentioned in another post, there is Cheapside – what a name eh!, the one closest to us located in the downtown, has everything, both local and imported. This place is our go to place for obvious reasons. You soon learn what is not grown here but is for sale – apples, oranges, broccoli, grapes. I am learning which stalls have their own locally grown produce and so frequent these. Several of them are Guyanese immigrants who operate small scale farms, and of course it is a family affair.

I have heard negative remarks about these folks, e.g. they undersell the locals, and are criticized for working so hard and making Bajans look less hardworking? It seems a number of these immigrants were booted out of BBD several years ago, “the government in 2008 embarked on a programme of mass deportation of Guyanese, many of whom had been working in agriculture production”. However, now due to the decline in farming/farmers, some are seeking to have them return. But this would only be those who work in agriculture, considered the grunt work by Bajans who tend to go into tourism and finance for professions (just like the migrant farm labour issue in the U.S. & Canada brought in to do the hard labour agricultural work). There is certainly no love loss between the different Caribbean (island) nations – who knew!! I ignorantly assumed there would be more of a regional spirit, it seems only if there are $ to be made in a collective situation, otherwise they are fierce competitors. It turns out in the field of agriculture, there are other nations that are blessed with far better soil.

We also went to Brighton FM, started by the current plantation owner passed down through the generations, located more or less in the middle of the island. It was an easy bus ride and just lovely to be traveling through the countryside. My 1st impressions of this FM: predominantly white clientele, grey haired, majority white vendors but not as much as clientele; majority of vendors not farmers but all sorts of artisans of gifts for tourists and the wealthy locals, and of course many prepared sweet and savoury food stalls. We got to try our first fish cutter which is essentially a fish sandwich/burger with a piece of deep fried fish with a condiment and a bun. I found it quite tasty. I believe there was a family selling some ready to eat foods and quinoa, who were from Peru but I didn’t have time to speak with them. I have discovered the best bakery on the island where I can get a real sourdough loaf of bread but at a cost of $9 Canadian I can’t afford that; alas the croissants were not up to France’s standards so not worth the $.

The lack of farmers at so called farmers markets appears to be a global phenomena from my experience. This would of course pertain to the recent resurgence of farmers markets, not the long standing traditional huge markets and bazaars found in many parts of the non-western world, or the small stores that congregate around town squares and function as the markets in European places.

At Brighton FM, the manner in which the fruit & vegetables were sold was new to me. There were these large long high tables with bags of prepacked vegetables and the occasional fruit (plastic bags – ugh! – I of course said something about this), each with a label indicating price, weight, price/weight and a barcode. Bananas were the only produce you could get weighed individually and there was someone to assist you with this. Otherwise there were on staff attending. Grabbing a plastic basket like you would find in grocery stores, you followed a path alongside the tables, choosing the produce you wanted, until you arrived at the cashier stations of which there were three, again just like in a grocery store. You could also get eggs – a flat of 30 or a dozen and you filled your own container for this. As there was not just one farmer providing all the produce, the bar codes enabled a tracking system so that at the end of the day, a farmer would know their sales and be compensated accordingly. I found out the cashiers are paid and the vendors do not have to pay for their stall. I didn’t have time to meet with the farmer owner but I now have a lot of other questions for him to understand why he set things up as he did, and how it is managed.

We subsequently visited Clifton meat shop, which reminded me of a shop you would see in wealthier areas of large cities or as in Europe. The farm raised many of their own Angus beef and other livestock but also sourced their meats locally as much as they could. They supplement some of the meat but all of this was clearly indicated and you could ask to confirm the source of the meat products.

I seem to have a weakness for salami & pepperoni. This must be from my European ancestry, and so both in Peru & now here I have been on the lookout for these. It does appear to be the case that such foods are not common in hot climate countries because for one they don’t need to preserve foods as much as you would have historically needed in colder climates for winter consumption, and thus there is no tradition of such foods in the diet. I had hoped to find some salami but had to settle for corned beef. We had the opportunity to sample first. The various beef & pork preserved meats were divine. My fav was the corned beef. I had seen some prices / lb with the latter price just a set price and I thought someone must have forgotten to put the price/lb. Well that was not the case. I thought okay too late to back out from purchasing this item so $42+ BBD later – yikes!!. We would just have to enjoy it but in very small doses, like one strip per day split between the two of us. Oh such is life for me – I always seem to have the expensive tastes when it comes to a whole host of things. The other meats were all reasonably priced.

Later we by chance stopped in on another plantation farm, Redland Plantation Estates, operated by a fellow named Charles Herbert, who had a multitude of other careers and was now in semi-retirement. We were not there for long but we got to see his greenhouse operation where he grows lots and lots of lettuce for large customers, e.g. restaurants & hotels primarily. It was all quite beautiful and organized, however not organic.

Back to my work with BAS. After seeking clarification, I learned that the target audiences for the marketing plan that I developing are the institutional buyers, e.g. hotels, restaurants, etc…, and the general public. This was despite having been told previously it was the farmers, existing members of BAS but also non-members.

Firstly these groups of buyers – the demand side of the market – are two different audiences and thus would require two different marketing campaigns. When I had initially been working from the premise of the farmers, I was going to focus on the F&V commodity group because they were the one group of producers in particular that were not meeting the demand as I explain below, and I was explicitly told they needed assistance and thus should be a focus.

I had to seriously question the prioritization of the institutional buyers as a target at this time because of the challenge of members of BAS not being able to supply the demand. This challenge is well researched and documented. Marketing studies and similar undertaken by WUSC, by the EU (European Union) & FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) agencies, clearly demonstrate that the capacity of Barbadian farmers to meet the demand does not exist at this time. From BAS’ own recent past records and analyses, BAS member agricultural producers cannot satisfy the demand.

The disconnect between supply and demand is no secret here. Alas for some, it is a catch 22 situation where agricultural producers are not able to increase their production for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • lack of sufficient acreage
  • lack of capital to afford:
  •     the inputs (organic or otherwise)
  •     the equipment
  •     the additional labour required to undertake the work
  • lack of knowledge in intensive production
  • lack of record keeping in order to plan accurate production.

So the farmers cannot meet the demand.

However the institutional buyers, e.g. hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and similar require a consistent supply. This supply has not been forthcoming for a number of reasons which include:

  • they have not had reliable quantity of supply
  • they have not had reliable quality of supply
  • they have not had a consistent supply, e.g. requiring lettuce year round
  • they are seeking to keep their procurement costs to a minimum and thus will make their purchases via the most cost effective means possible, so this may be BAS or what are called consolidators or hucksters (not joking here and it isn’t even a derogatory word but does denote of lower socio-economic class) or direct from farmers.

    Thus there are and will no longer be annual contracts which specify an agreement to purchase a particular produce as would have been the norm in the past.

    Alas if the farmer cannot be guaranteed of x sales (measured in a certain weight) for x produce, they are unable to take the chance of increasing production because they can’t risk a loss in or no sales and thus income.

This is not to say that institutions will not favour certain producers because they can rely on the supply, and that BAS could be the institution that brokers the procurement on behalf of their members and buyers, thus in effect BAS members could somewhat depend on more or less reliable sales if they had more accurate and reliable data of agricultural production of their members.

However, dependence on loyalty is risky in today’s economy.

So I am tasked with creating a marketing campaign to target institutions where I cannot use slogans or phrases which state clearly anything pertaining to BAS providing a consistent high quality and quantity of particular commodities – what would in essence be major selling points. I can’t help but feel this is putting the cart before the horse as they say. I have since learned that the target audience are the existing institutional buyers, so one hotel, a school meal program and a grocery store chain, and it is about increasing sales to these buyers.

One of the objectives of the position was to address this key issue of the disconnect between supply and demand, working towards the supply being able to match the demand, but in the compressed time frame, this task was discarded. I am still planning on providing some recommendations in this since I have some knowledge that I can contribute on how to tackle this, e.g. setting up producer cooperatives.

This would have been an extremely difficult task because of the Bajan cultural characteristics of lack of trust and jealousy, so that information is not shared for fear others will use it to benefit themselves, instead of supporting the collective benefit, there not being a cooperative ethos in this society, a legacy of colonization of course. Everywhere you go the hammer of colonization is still so pervasive. No surprise there of course, but it is disheartening.

Oh by the way just in case you were thinking wow those are critical judgments, these comments are not from my own imagination. These characteristics have been pointed out to me by a variety of Bajans, both black and white, expats, and from others who have come from surrounding island nations (e.g. Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago) or the South American mainland (usually Guyanese) and have lived a long time in Barbados. It was also made abundantly clear to me, and not in a respectful way I might ad, that it would take time to garner trust from the farmer producers so that I could gather the information I would need to design promotional materials and training programs for BAS members that would realize increase production and capacity. I was like duh!! Of course I knew it would take time and even 9 months would not have been enough time (I estimated this part of the project could take better part of at least one year incorporating trust building time).

I am not sure if the goal is to realize contracts as was the case during the previous owners of one of the large chains of grocery stores in the country. The new owners canceled and/or did not renew contracts, although they still do place weekly orders with BAS (but as I have stated BAS can only partially fulfill those orders). As is the nature of today’s business – it is about acquiring the lowest cost goods and in agriculture this can change from week to week.

I have just learned that BAS will be reopening a previously operating farmers market. Good idea!! This was a no brainer. I have heard wonderful things about this market. As is typical, I am rarely provided or told about various aspects and developments of the organization. I find out through my own research, or just by accident. Part and parcel of lack of trust & jealousy, is information holding. It is also weird that the ideas I have come up with in my short time in this country and working with this organization, seeing what isn’t working and what are the opportunities, seem to be coming to fruition, but I couldn’t tell you whether I had any hand in this. I guess the beauty of the universe is this synchronicity.

The above are just some of the circumstances I have been faced with in terms of attempting to undertake this work. The lack of clear objectives, the lack of an understanding of what work is needed from the partner organization – that is why they seek folks like us who have a particular skillset they are lacking – can present very challenging discussions in determining what work needs to be undertaken so that finally there is clarity and focus and the work can get done.

PS: Pics are to come. I have only recently realized that in my attempts to shrink photo sizes, I have lost a lot of the clarity of the images. My apology for this. I am working on trying to resolve this but alas my website has limited storage capacity. It does seem to help that if you click on the photos to enlarge them, they are more clear.

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