THE sugar industry supports the livelihoods of about 200,000 people in the country.
Once the backbone of the economy, the industry has been plagued with global market issues, rising costs and labour problems.
In 2010, ignoring the recommendations of a report conducted by consultants Deloitte New Zealand, that government divest its stake in the Fiji Sugar Corporation, PM and Minister for Sugar Rear Admiral (Ret) Voreqe Bainimarama began a series of reforms to turn the industry around.
Despite a significant exodus of growers from the industry — 16,827 in 2010 to just over 14,000 today — cane farmers believe the reforms are working.
Among the many reasons cited for farmers leaving were — expiring cane leases, loss of children to urban centres and increasing costs.
On the upside, the cane price has increased significantly from the dismal $49.16 in 2010 to $81.82 for the 2012 season. Also, the FSC's record loss of $175.1m in 2010 was reduced to $36.6m in 2011.
Cane production improved from 45,000 hectares in 2010 to 46,000ha a year later. And a government grant of $8.4m to boost new cane production has been well received by growers.
However, rising chemical, production, harvesting and transport costs continue to plague the industry. Land leases have been extended but growers say the 30-year extension does not provide them with enough security. For the youth there is growing disillusionment as unemployment has forced some with trade qualifications to work in the cane fields.
In the lead up to the September 17 general election, indications are that these issues could influence the way farmers will vote.
Throughout the cane belt area, the high cost of basic food items has been identified as the biggest concern, followed by labour shortage and costs and road and water issues.
In an area that has about 4000 canegrowers and is regarded as one of the highest production areas in the country with more than 361,000 tonnes harvested last year, praise for the Prime Minister's sugar reforms and initiatives such as the free school fee and bus fare schemes have been weighed against the rising cost of production and transportation.
Many have pledged support for the PM, however, the support has come with expectations that labour and food costs will be reduced and issues like the repair of the Koronubu bridge addressed with urgency.
About 1600 growers produced almost 140,000 tonnes of cane last year in Tavua.
However, one of the most productive sectors, Yaladro, has been plagued with drainage and road issues since the dawn of sugarcane farming in the area.
For many, this was an issue that could sway the way they vote.
About 1700 growers supply the Penang mill in Rakiraki. Last year they produced 160,000 tonnes of cane.
Here, lease issues, labour shortage, high production costs and access to basic amenities like piped water will determine how they will vote. Many feel the only person who has taken time to come and listen to their problems has been the PM.
More than 2000 farmers in Lautoka harvested over 500,000 tonnes of cane last year. Labour shortages top the agenda in the Sugar City cane area. Farmers say the cost of enticing cutters and the conditions they demand, has increased the overall cost of harvesting. Growers say they are happy with the reforms that the government has implemented but they are looking for solutions to the labour and food price issue.
Land lease issues, high food costs and poor road maintenance are the biggest problems for the 2200 farmers in the area. More than 70 cane farmers in Nawaicoba Sector — one of the highest producing areas — will be meeting with landowners from Yako Village to discuss the renewal of their leases.
Farmers who had not received water for about two decades celebrated when the precious liquid began flowing from their taps three weeks ago. These and food prices are determining factors in the lead up to the September polls.
Farmers on the Kavanagasau side of the Sigatoka River who abandoned cane-farming for other crops are waiting for the rail bridge to be fixed. At present there are about 1200 growers in the cane business. The cost of food and road and water issues will determine how they vote in September.