High costs on farms

Ravinesh Kumar shows the abandoned cane farms at Namau, Ba. Picture BALJEET SINGH

ONCE upon a time the rolling hills of Volovolo in the Ba hinterland used to produce about 7000 tonnes of sugar cane.

However, over the past six years, six of the nine farmers who tilled the land in the area have abandoned their farms.

Today, the three remaining farmers combined produce about 700 tonnes of cane. Ravinesh Kumar, a labourer in the area, said escalating labour and cartage costs forced many farmers to pack up and go.

“Before, growers used to pay canecutters $8 a tonne but over the past few years the price increased to $20 a tonne,” the 42-year-old said.

“Before, the cutters used to be happy with one lot of food rations a week, now they demand two.

“Farmers just couldn’t do it any more and they just left.”

This story is not unique to Volovolo. It is a tale that is repeated right across the 38,000 hectares under cane in Fiji.

From 24,479 farmers who produced 3.38 million tonnes in 1991, the industry has declined to about 11,000 active farmers today who produce about 1.7m tonnes of cane.

Over the years farmers across the Western Division have abandoned their farms for different reasons.

While some of the contributing factors have been ageing farmers, lease issues, access to equipment and decline in yield because of poor husbandry, cost was by far the biggest reason behind the exit.

A majority of farmers have been voicing their concerns about the escalating cost of canecutters — combined with high transportation charges and increased cultivation and land preparation costs — and its impact on their livelihood.

In a bid to reduce costs for farmers in 2009, Government introduced, for the first time, fertiliser subsidies worth $9m.

This gradually increased to $15m this year and Government also introduced a weedicide subsidy of $6m.

Apart from a cane development revolving fund which has been in place for a few years, Government has in this financial year also introduced a $15m cane planting grant, brought in 30 tractors at a cost of $2.8m and spent $2m on assisting more than 20 cooperatives purchase mechanical harvesters.

When growers raised concerns about how much mechanical harvester owners were charging them — up to $30 per tonne — Government, through the Fiji Consumer and Competition Commission, regulated the hire rate to $17.50 per tonne. While the industry welcomed the initiative, it only brought relief to 40 per cent of growers who planted on flatland.

Farmers who planted in hilly areas — and who make up 60 per cent of the sector — raised concerns that no direct assistance had come to them.

During various growers consultations and forums, farmers had asked for canecutters’ rates and lorry hire charges to be regulated.

However, during sessions with the Fiji Sugar Corporation over the past year, the FSC has maintained it would need to look into the issue. Sugar Ministry permanent secretary Yogesh Karan said any regulation needed consultation and a detailed study before it could be implemented.

Farmers had lauded the support by Government to the industry with its $62.3m allocation in the 2018-2019 National Budget.

In addition, this year Attorney-General and Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum also announced a three-year guaranteed price of $85 per tonne for cane.

While this was well-received across the industry, it has also contributed to increased costs. Farmers who used to fork out $250 to $300 in food rations for cutters are now paying between $500 to $600 because food costs are so high.

Growers who used to pay canecutters $20 per tonne in harvesting rates are now paying $27 per tonne or more this year. And lorry cartage costs have increased from $9-$15 per tonne to $10-$25 per tonne.

More Stories