Some Toledo farmers are up in arms over a media announcement made yesterday, Wednesday, by Roque Mai, managing director of Belize Marketing Development Corporation (BMDC), that they will be accepting about 2 million pounds less rice this year than they did last year, due to an existing surplus.

The problems being experienced by rice farmers in the south, who number over 1,000, are reportedly more acute than those being experienced by Mennonite farmers of the north, whose millions of pounds of rice harvested since last year are, likewise, yet to move onto the shelves of Belizean stores.

All the rice produced in Belize is intended for local consumption, and all parties we spoke with agree on one thing – that farmers need urgent access to an export market in the region.

One farming family we spoke with today, out of the Toledo area, said that they stand to lose a substantial amount of money if the rice they have planted does not make its way out to the market—and they fear that they may even end up losing their home in the process.

The difficulty being experienced by Toledo farmers is compounded by infighting among rival factions of rice growers—almost reminiscent of the problems that have lately been faced in the sugar and citrus industries.

Amandala understands from multiple sources that the Toledo Grain Growers Association has been morphed into a new association — the Toledo Rice, Corn and Beans Producers Association. The association is headed by chairman, Dennis Usher, former Toledo West area representative for the ruling United Democratic Party (1989). Our attempts to reach Usher today via phone were unsuccessful, but we did leave him a voicemail.

The Toledo rice farmers we were able to speak with say that Government really needs to intervene to help solve the problems they are facing.

One female farmer continuing the family tradition complains that there is very little consultation with rice farmers, and they were never consulted before a decision was made by the BMDC to reduce the amount of rice the corporation will take this year. The implications, she said, could be dire for Toledo farmers.

Mai told Amandala, however, that they did consult with the executive of the association. He said that the corporation has long been stressing the need for Toledo farmers to improve the quality of their rice, especially those using mechanized farming versus the milpa, which involves handpicking.

Mai said that this year, they are moving ahead to implement a new grading system that will likely spawn new controversy—but which, he said, is necessary, especially if farmers want to access foreign markets.

He also said that the current prices being paid to farmers, ranging from 32 to 36 cents a pound for paddy, means that they continue to be close to breakeven for rice production. One pound of paddy, said Mai, produces about half a pound of rice. Rice sells for about 90 cents a pound wholesale.

Mai said that they are just now moving into producing the rice paddy harvested in 2010, which will leave a surplus of 1.5 to 2 million pounds of rice at the start of the new 2011 season. He said that with the cash crunch the corporation continues to face, they cannot afford to buy more than 4 million pounds from farmers in Toledo.

Stanley Ramper, Circle R Products manager, said that their company is a group of 25 farmers of Blue Creek, Orange Walk, who also are saddled with a major oversupply of rice. He said that they have about $5 million worth of rice sitting in bins.

Several farmers we spoke with complain of other compounding factors: the importation of foreign rice by the BMDC and by some “paper farmers,” who allegedly transport the commodity from Mexico and Guatemala and take to the BMDC for sale.

Mai said that the only time the BMDC imported rice in 2010 was when the rice fields were damaged by severe weather.

Mennonite farmer, Edward Reimer, stressed the need for Belize to tap into the export market: “We need to grow past the hand to mouth stage we are in,” said Reimer.

Richard Reid, senior trade economist in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, told Amandala he was unaware of the rice surplus before we called him. He said that Belize may be able to sell some of its surplus rice to CARICOM.

“The country cannot build an agricultural sector on the basis of domestic demand,” said Reid. “We need to shift to export orientation.”

The rice situation is not as acute as the onion problem, reported in last week’s headlines, because rice, when well stored, according to Ramper, can last about 2 years.

But there are fears from the south that farmers there, who are not as well financed as the Mennonites, can’t afford to wait for so long for the markets to absorb their crops—and that desperation to sell to meet urgent bills could, without access to new markets, lead to heightened conflicts in the south.

Rice is a main staple of the Belizean diet. Belizeans, said Mai, eat about 18 million pounds of rice for the year.

Amandala