Our dairy industry that was once one of the most promising components of our agricultural output, and the envy of many a Caribbean neighbour, appears on the verge of collapse.
It does not take a lot of effort to understand the concerns of the farmers. Most of our dairy farmers are small Barbadians who sacrificed and worked hard to achieve what they now have, and it must be an almost mortal fear to watch all they own sitting precariously on the precipice of destruction.
We do not make reference to “small farmers” as an attempt to disregard the contribution of the better off in the group like Sir Charles Williams, because anyone who knows him knows he works as hard as any other, and like any investor deserves a fair chance to realise his investment dream.
That’s why, we like all the farmers, wonder how they can operate in an environment in which they are expected to deliver milk to the dairy every other week — and this is after a recent 25 per cent reduction in demand from the sole purchaser of their output, the Pine Hill Dairy.
We wonder, like the farmers, what they will do, since they operate living creatures — cows — and not machines that can be switched off. The cow that produced milk yesterday will produce it today and tomorrow — whether or not the farmer or the dairy wants it.
It would also be reasonable to expect that since it is not a machine, it will still require inputs — food and water, and costly care — whether or not the farmer or the dairy wants its milk.
This adds up to this situation, we suspect, that has many, if not all of the 40-odd dairy farmers living in fear.
But we also have to be fair to the Pine Hill Dairy, regardless of how it ended up in the present dilemma. It would be unreasonable to compel the dairy, a business entity to purchase milk it is obviously having considerable problems selling.
Yes, we have heard the claims that it was the dairy’s own change of process that has not met the taste expectations of consumers and have caused the decline in milk sales.
Some have said the price of the various milk products is to high given the reduced purchasing power of Barbadians. We even know that the decision of the School Meals Department of the Ministry of Education to cut its purchase from the dairy has had a significant impact.
It is an accepted practice that in the world of commerce/business the consumer is the final arbiter, and all things being equal, if they don’t take to the product then it dies a natural death. No argument against that, except that Barbadians apparently once consumed much more local fresh milk than they now do. So what has happened?
Is it price, or taste, or external competition, or some other factors? Are Barbadians consuming less milk than they did five or ten years ago, or just less local milk? Is it time for an alternative to the Pine Hill Dairy? Is it time for three or four farmers to merge into a cooperative relationship to bring their cost down?
As a nation we have expended too much time and effort over the last three decades in particular to let this vital industry fail. We have spent too much of our financial resources on educating our people to be incapable of coming up with a viable working solution to this problem?
We do not believe the long term answer to viability is a handout to the farmers or the dairy — but there has to be a solution. What we do know is that it will not be found in letting the industry collapse and then importing someone else’s product. We are smarter than that!