Acting Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity (MALFFB), Benjamin Shing told the ‘From farm to table’ Forum two days ago at Melanesian Hotel that experts from relevant Departments should help farmers who market their produce to hotels and restaurants, to understand the importance of quality and quantity then connect them to deal directly with their clients or wholesalers.
The Acting DG began by saying that the country’s import bill between 2011 and 2014 has increased by 11%.
“This is very serious and it shows that our agricultural production is not enough or we are not doing enough to bring our produce to the market to reduce the bill and this is something we must deal with,” he said.
“Out of this, food products and live animal import bill alone stands at Vt5.9 billion, which makes up 20% of the overall total import bill.”
He told the farmers and Directors that the Forum must strategise to reduce this import bill.
Live animal products refer to seafood (fish), poultry (chicken) and dairy (meat) products which account for 79% of the estimated import bill and total demand for vegetables in 2014 cost Vt190 million per year.
Out of the amount, Vt108 million worth of those products were imported.
“Basically it tells us that a significant amount of money is spent outside the country while only a minimum is spent in the country, which agrees with the Minister’s call for relevant laws to be passed in support of import substitution,” he said.
The Acting DG reiterated the importance to focus on quality and quantity and to increase production of vegetables such as carrot, onion lettuce and potato which grow locally.
He said there is a need to strike a balance between what are the appropriate tariff incentives to entice clients to come and production incentives to attract them to buy locally.
With the completion of tourism infrastructures in Port Vila and Luganville and Tanna, cruise tourism spending cannot be compared with that of air travelers.
The Acting DG said according to the 2015 IFC Report, the hotels and restaurants sector have to import their supplies due to lack of reliable supply of high quality of local produce. Again this boils down to quality and quantity.
“The hotels and restaurants will come to you to order 40 tons from you every month but then you can only supply 20 tons and you cannot even meet their next order”, he said.
“Their guests need potato and they expect you to be reliable and regular and provide quality and quantity at all times or they lose business. These are the areas we have to deal with; not only we in Government but we must help the producers to remove the barriers of trade domestically which face the hotels and restaurants sector”.
The hotels and restaurants sector blame a range of factors which they insist cause unreliability and low quality of produce.
They name linkages between buyers (hotels and restaurants) and farmers through wholesalers (who buy from the farmers to meet demand).
But the truth is that while farmers have land, they do not have machines to help them to increase production. This is why the Government has provided tractors to plough the fields on Tanna and Efate to start with. Other islands will also have access to tractors.
Access road to farms is essential to transport farm produce in comfort to the market. So far roads are used to transport people but not produce. From now on farmers also need good roads to transport their produce to the market without ruining the quality of the harvest.
On the ship, there must be special storage room for agricultural produce to transport to Port Vila.
“Ship owners must be trained to not mix farm produce with cement flour for example.
“These are things that we need to look at, the whole value chain,” Acting DG Shing said.
While local farmers cannot compete with New Zealand and Australian farmers, he said, the Government must legislate in order to charge higher for local products but local farmers must increase production. That is the balance required.
Farmers do not have access to high quality training in what to produce, the processes to follow to market their produce and source of capital.
Farmers must form their associations to allow them to speak with authority.
The day-long forum was expected to draft an Agritourism Outcome Report for approval towards quality and quantity of increased production and the linkages from the farm to the restaurant.