The operators of Grenada Innovative Farm Limited (GIF) which was formerly the government-owned Grand Bras Estate, are running against time to meet an August deadline given to them by government to increase productivity.
Acting General Manager, Liam “Owusu” James told a recent “Sundays With George Grant Programme” that GIF has already taken a decision to focus on four cash crops – melons, sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkins – in addition to a six-month production/revenue plan which defines the estate’s planting schedule and forecasts for the revenue to be earned by August.
“We are confident that we can eventually meet those targets. So we are confident that by August, GIF would be stabilised, workers would be paid on time, and we would be able to start repaying our debts,” he told the programme host.
James said since the farm was privatised there has been a major turn around in its operations.
He recalled that the ruling New National Party (N NP) government of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell chose to commercialise Grand Bras and other state-owned estates as they were a financial drain on the Treasury.
He said that between 2006 and 2012 the total revenue earned by Grand Bras estate was $129,409, while the annual wage bill was approximately $357,000.
“So it was a major loss-making venture. So I think that is the main reason it was a major drain on the Treasury, and that’s the main reason government chose to commercialise the estates,” he added.
Twenty-six people are currently employed on the estate.
James was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the disbanded People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) that played a key security role in the 1979-83 Grenada Revolution.
Persons close to the ill-fated Grenada Revolution often referred to him as the third most powerful man in the country after late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and his deputy, Bernard Coard.
James held the official post of Deputy Minister of the Interior and was largely responsible for the day-to-day security of the State.
President of the Grenada Bank and General Workers Union (BGWU) Justin Campbell who also appeared on the programme said after the union realised that things were not going too well on the estate, they met with Agriculture Minister Roland Bhola along with his Permanent Secretary, Merina Jessamy to discuss the problems existing on the farm.
He spoke of the Government officials giving an undertaking to get back to the union within three weeks of the meeting but this has failed to materialise.
Campbell disclosed that the workers did not receive salaries for five fortnights and at the time GIF took control of the estate there were 16 workers, but that number is now reduced to six workers.
“Workers were crying out… and I think it is our responsibility as a union to really seek the workers interest, and to do it in the most amicable way,” he said.
Former revolutionary figure, John “Chalky” Ventour, another member of the management team at GIF indicated that it is difficult to transform agriculture without an increase in productivity.
“We can’t be talking about reducing the food import bill, we can’t be talking about creating wealth, and we have… poor working people in our country especially among workers in agriculture,” said Ventour who was a leading trade unionist in the Grenada Revolution.
He told the host of the programme that when the new management team took control of the farm the employees were only working for a maximum of three hours a day.
According to Ventour, one of the incentives offered to some of the workers was to increase their wages by 19.6 percent, and a benefit package was also developed.
He also said the workers were provided with new equipment as a means of enhancing their capability to perform effectively on the job.
The GIF Director observed that once the probation period of the workers came to an end and they were confirmed on the job, performance began to dip which resulted in GIF not being able to meet its operational cost and farm wages.
Ventour said that three meetings were held with BGWU but GIF did not bring to their attention the precarious financial status of the company.
He added that the management complained to the union about its dissatisfaction with the performance and productivity level of the workers.
“We also explained to the workers and the union what would be the consequence if there was no improvement. We met on three occasions with the union leadership and the workers explaining that because we could see the trend, and that was last year 2015 and there was no improvement,” he said.
The ex-revolutionary figure pointed out that the estate was forced to lay-off “the most unproductive workers.”
He disclosed that one of the workers who received a 40 percent increase in salary had to be dismissed for “dishonesty and theft,” and poor performance.
However, Ventour believes the management team now in place at Grand Bras has begun to see a turn around in the financial fortunes of the estate.
He said production on the farm grew since GIF took over operation with a growth in cocoa production of 45 percent.
“Total revenue for January to August 2015… under GIF was $110,000.00… and for the calendar year, last year, it was $151,000.00,” he said.
Farmer’s Representative in the Upper House of Parliament, Sen. Keith Clouden who also joined the programme felt that government’s decision to commercialise the state-owned estates was a bad policy move.
Sen. Clouden recalled that Head of the Commercialisation Committee, Sen. Simon Stiell informed the nation that because government was losing a lot of money from the estates, they had to proceed with commercialisation.
“That’s not quite true because when the last government, the previous government (of Tillman Thomas) had reviewed the situation and diagnosed the problem, they came up, then Permanent Secretary, Mr. (Aaron) Francois, he adopted a new strategy to engage the workers, to put in the necessary resources into the estates, and to get production up,” he said.
Sen. Clouden felt that the workers should have been given preference through a co-operative to manage the estates since the new owners have no knowledge of agriculture.
He also blamed the technocrats in the Ministry of Agriculture for failing to work along with Ventour and James in providing them with the required technical assistance in order to get the Grand Bras Estate functioning to its full potential.
The Farmer’s Senator in Parliament accused the new operators at the estate of destroying two acres of avocado fields, and literally abandoning the sour sup and banana fields.
In responding to Sen. Clouden’s concern, James indicated that notwithstanding that as investors with no previous experience in agriculture, this does not mean they have no chance of succeeding with the project.
“There are many investors who get into a new field of business, a new industry which they had no previous experience but they would tap into the resource of other people with experience in the field, and we have done that,” he said.
The former top brass in the ill-fated PRG did not identify any of the experts who were at their disposal on the Grand Bras project.
However, a knowledgeable source who visited the farm expressed alarm to this newspaper about the activities taking place on the farm.
He singled out for mention the costly irrigation system that was put in place by the new estate owners.
James also refuted the allegation that avocado fields were destroyed.
Ventour and James spent several years incarcerated at the Richmond Hill Prisons after being convicted along with 15 other Government and Army Officials for the murder of Bishop and half his Cabinet in the bloody carnage that took place on Fort George on October 19th, 1983 in a palace coup staged by hardliners.
GIF took over the operations of Grand Bras Estate on September 1, 2014.