The Fiji Times » Aging farmers – the sugar industry’s burning issue

Four years after the start of a government assistance program to attract new and young cane growers to the industry and an aging workforce remains one of the biggest issues facing the sector. confronted.

Under the New Farmer Assistance Grant (NFAG) introduced in 2017, the Ministry of Sugar covers the cost of acquiring the lease and the costs of establishing the farm, provides planting grants for five acres of land the first year, plus free fertilizers and weedkillers.

The permanent secretary of the ministry, Yogesh Karan, said that through the initiative, the government had helped 209 new farmers to enter the industry during this period, but 79% of the country’s 12,000 sugarcane farmers have still over 50 years old.

Among them is Gajnath Singh, a 70-year-old farmer from Rakiraki.

“Who in their right mind would want to plant sugarcane and wait a year and a half to get paid,” Mr Singh said.

“With a bit of education under their belt, young people seize every opportunity to get regular paid employment, no matter how menial, whether working in a supermarket or a gas station.

“All they want is regular money so they can go out and have fun and buy top-up cards for their cellphones.”

A survey by the Fiji Times in the western Sigatoka Division sugarcane belt in Rakiraki in 2017 found that encouraging young people to enter the industry was an uphill battle.

Lead farmers contacted said the situation had not improved.

Sugar cane farmers said their children saw the difficulties their parents endured to put food on the table, compared to those in urban centers whose parents received a regular income – and the children of farmers do not were certainly unwilling to do the same.

Mr Singh said his two sons aged 34 and 42 had no interest in farming the land as they saw no future in it.

“The glory days of cane farming are over,” he said.

“Fifty years ago we felt like we belonged because the sugar industry brought in a lot of money to Fiji and we played an important role in that process.

“We had a voice in the industry, our views were heard and considered, and our cane payments were coming in on time.”

Tourism, which brought in more than $3 billion two years ago according to Fiji’s 2019 Annual International Visitor Survey, has been left in tatters after borders closed following the COVID-19 pandemic. 19.

And the eyes of all Fijians once again turned to agriculture and the sugar industry in hopes of some form of economic resurrection.

However, world sugar prices have fallen from over 30 US cents per pound in 2011 to just over 16 US cents per pound today, posing enormous challenges for the Fiji Sugar Corporation and the Fiji government. to try to reach 85 dollars per ton of cane. guaranteed price that it had committed to supply from 2018 to 2020.

Fijian sugarcane growers are paid for a season’s harvest in five payments spread over an 18-month period, according to the bible of the industry – the Sugar Industry Master Award.

One of the largest farmers’ organizations in the country, the Fiji Cane Growers Association, said the problem of aging producers had been exacerbated by rising costs for farmers compared to falling incomes and volatility in prices. world sugar prices.

“It’s a combination of problems and young people aren’t interested in anything complicated, they prefer to live simple lives,” said the association’s general secretary, Bala Dass.

“They want to work and at the end of the week they want money in their pockets.

“They won’t go into an industry where the cost of labour, planting, harvesting and transportation is high and then have to wait a year and a half to get paid.

“And when they get paid, there are so many deductions for fertilizers, weed killers and ground rent – that they end up with a meager income.”

National Federation Party leader Professor Biman Prasad said that on average a farmer’s cost per tonne of cane – for production, harvesting and delivery – would be around $60, which which would bring the producer a net income of $3153.82 per year.

Professor Prasad said the 2013-2014 Fiji Household Income and Expenditure Survey had set the basic poverty income at $11,440 or $220 a week.

He said the average sugarcane farmer earned just over $60 a week, well below the $220 ordinary Fijians needed to survive.

The parliamentarian said the cane payment system, falling incomes in the face of rising costs, was a huge deterrent to young people taking up cane farming.

• This story was made possible with support from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australia Pacific Climate Partnership.

Rachel J. Bradford