|Manager of the St. George Farmers’ Marketing Cooperative Society Limited, Reginald St. Hill, examining some of the produce on sale at the market. (A. Skeete/BGIS)|
While the observance of World Food Day 2012 is but a recent memory, its theme – Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World – should still provide ???food for thought’ for many Barbadians, particularly small farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs.
Government and agricultural officials have touted these cooperatives as a viable option for small farmers to pool limited resources and to boost local food production, but what are the benefits for the community and by extension, country?????
Of the four agricultural cooperatives in Barbados, the St. George Farmers’ Marketing Cooperative Society Limited is one of the more well-known. It has been in operation for 27 years and serves as an example of the hard work and dedication of the farming community in and around St. George. Its market is a modest facility adjacent to the St. George Parish Church at The Glebe.
Manager, Reginald St. Hill, pointed out that while there are some challenges in terms of the size of the market, one of the major benefits of an agricultural cooperative was that farmers in the community had a reliable outlet for their produce.
"The Co-op is not a big building where we can carry thousands of pounds [of produce]. Sometimes the farmers have a lot of surplus and we can only take so much… We get a good supply of produce from our members and some others as well. We try not to turn away anybody and try to help in any way possible."
Speaking to the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS), he noted that the market had developed a very strong customer base over the years with persons travelling the length and breadth of the island to shop in St. George.
"We have persons from the south coast to the north coast; people come from as far as St. Lucy to shop with us," he remarked.????????????????????
The Market Manager contended that the attraction for consumers was that they could buy fresh, nutritious produce at reasonable prices which, in turn, would boost the local industry rather than purchasing processed, imported goods.
Mr. St. Hill, a farmer for some 15 years, added that many persons visiting the facility have expressed an interest in joining the cooperative. He outlined the process for persons who wish to be part of the organisation, which now has some 40 members.
"A lot of people are coming through asking how they can join, so they too can benefit. A lot of persons call as well… [To join] you come and collect an application form and fill it out. There is a $5 membership fee and $100 in shares. The Board of Directors would appoint someone to investigate and prove that you are a legitimate farmer and doing so in the environs of St. George and from there… the Board would examine the information and the general body would vote and decide whether to accept you as a member," he explained.
|Manager of the St. George Farmers’ Marketing Cooperative Society Limited, Reginald St. Hill. standing outside the market. (A. Skeete/BGIS)|
While the association works assiduously to ensure its members have an avenue to sell their produce, Mr. St. Hill pointed out that the Co-op is so much more than just a market. In this regard, he noted they have sought to remain relevant by keeping their members up-to-date with the latest farming trends and techniques.
"From time to time, we bring in experts to give members advice, particularly in the area of greenhouse technology because this is something still relatively new to our farmers.
We always have people come in to enlighten the farmers and give their expertise on any new areas so they would be aware of what is happening in the sector," the Manager said.
As part of the process of forming linkages within the local farming community, Mr. St. Hill revealed that the St. George Co-op was seeking to develop a closer working relationship with similar associations such as the Barbados Pig Farmers Cooperative Society Ltd.
The strong community ties of the farmers’ group are also evidenced by their willingness to give back to the people of St. George, with Mr. St. Hill indicating that the cooperative was happy to support the community through its donations.
|President of the Barbados Pig Farmers Cooperative Society Limited, Algernon Johnson, speaking to the BGIS. (A. Skeete/BGIS)|
President of the Barbados Pig Farmers Cooperative Society Limited, Algernon Johnson, echoed the sentiments of his colleague, noting that being part of a cooperative gave members a stronger voice and the opportunity to work in tandem with like-minded organisations for the benefit of customers.
"Look at the benefits that you can have from joining or forming a co-op. It gives you volume. We also trade with organisations such as the Barbados Association of Retired Persons. We try to encourage them to shop with us by giving them reasonable and good prices and quality service and products all of the time," he added.
The Barbados Pig Farmers Cooperative Society Limited has been in operation since 1992, with now over 250 members. Its outlet is located on the corner of Norham and Tweedside Main Road, having moved there in 1996. From there, they sell locally produced chicken, black belly lamb, goat mutton, beef, eggs, vegetables and provisions.
Mr. Johnson said his cooperative was cognisant of the rising cost of food and as such, tried to ensure customers received a fair price while maintaining a quality product.
"We are trying to provide a more cost effective price for meat and a quality service. We try to be within reason when pricing [produce] and not be excessive. That is the benefit for Barbadian consumers when dealing with the co-op. For the farmers, you will have steady market all year round," he pointed out.
Mr. Johnson said the Pig Farmers Co-op always sought to maintain ???a personal touch’ when dealing with its customers, as its members were also impacted by the rising cost of agricultural inputs such as feed.
He suggested that businesses should never take their customers, clients or members for granted, particularly in these difficult times. "If there are problems inform us and we will try to make it better next time. We always expect feedback from our customers and farmers. We are now looking to put in place a suggestion box in our outlet at Tweedside Road. We will do that shortly so we can get feedback and suggestions. We will put them before our board to see how we can further improve our operation and the organisation.
"We do have good interaction with our customers. We had to raise some prices recently and as with anything else once the prices change, there will be some questions but we explained to them the reason why we had to raise the price a bit because of the operation and the current feed prices," he said.
In this regard, the President revealed that his association was exploring several alternatives as it sought to remain competitive, sustainable and preserve its customer base.
"We have no control over the rising feed costs. But, we are looking as an organisation, trying to source some alternative feeds for our farmers so we can keep our prices competitive," Mr. Johnson disclosed.
Citing the example of Canada, Mr. Johnson suggested that they were able to negotiate the economic recession quite successfully due to the prominence of cooperatives. He believes it is a lesson that Barbadians should heed.
"Having cooperatives is very beneficial to the country…If we work together we can help to inject money into the economy, keep prices stable for the customers and not have excessive pricing which we have from some sellers," he contended.
There are several advantages which agricultural cooperatives provide to their members and the community. They help to keep Barbadian farmers employed, offer a steady market for their produce and services and are a feasible way to maximise scarce resources. Consumers, in turn, have the option of buying fresh, nutritious produce at reasonable prices rather than imported, processed food. ??As a community based entities, such organisations are also better tuned to the needs of their members and clients. In essence, cooperatives promote the importance of working together for a common goal – lowering a rising food import bill, and boosting food production while encouraging more persons to buy local.
If the local agricultural sector is to develop, then such organisations must play an integral role. They could be the vital cog as Barbados seeks to diversify this crucial sector and survive such challenging economic times.