The mills were cranked up today at Tower Hill, but the customary long lines of sugar cane trucks were missing. This year, because of a late start, production is taking a hit so farmers are bracing for a tough season ahead.  At least forty thousand persons depend on the industry for their livelihood which means that the entire sugar belt will be facing hard economic times. News Five’s Duane Moody was in Orange Walk at A.S.R./B.S.I. where everyone was doing their best to put their best foot forward.

Duane Moody, Reporting

After a month’s delay, the 2020 Sugar Cane Crop Season officially opened with a symbolic ceremony held at the B.S.I. Compound at Tower Hill in Orange Walk. The late start was agreed to by all stakeholders, the millers and the farmers, following the drought of 2019 that affected the sugar cane crop. B.S.I. Director Mac McLachlan says that over ten thousand persons—whether directly or indirectly—benefit from the industry in the north.

Mac McLachlan, Director, B.S.I.

“We employ around about six hundred and seventy highly skilled Belizean men and women who run this mill and keep it working. We give as an industry employment directly and indirectly to around ten thousand people in the north of this country. Around about forty thousand people generally rely on this industry for their livelihoods in the north and that represents about forty percent of the economy in the north of Belize. This industry itself is responsible for bringing in about six percent of Belize’s foreign exchange income and we produce about thirty percent of the agricultural gross added value for Belize. And we provide through or BELCOGEN behind us here about fifteen percent of Belize’s electricity needs.”

Contributions to the country’s economy aside, this year, the industry has projected millions of dollars in losses as sugar cane production dropped by thirty percent due to the prolonged drought. And that was evident this morning because even though milling began, the inclement weather over the past few days has compounded the issue. There was not an abundance of trucks laden with cane along the route leading up to the mills because the rainy weather has prevented farmers from harvesting their crops and taking to the mills.

The projection is that just about one million tonnes of sugar cane will be milled; that’s three hundred thousand tonnes less than last year’s production.

Mac McLachlan

“From a record production last year, it is going to fall off significantly this year because of the drought; we don’t know exactly by how much. Sugar prices are beginning to rally thankfully; after a long period in indulgence, there is still a lot of sugar stocks in the world to use up, so we are not going to see anything dramatic initially, but the global sugar market is in a deficit position which is better for pricing going forward.   We’ve put a lot of investment into this business for the future and we want to leverage that in support for our communities and farmers here to overcome some very distinct and difficult challenges related to the weather in this last year.”

All four cane farmers associations and their members have accepted that the industry will realize a loss in this season. The Government of Belize has acquired a two-million-dollar loan facility that will be used to assist farmers affected by the drought. Minister of Agriculture says that they have just recently completed a register of the farmers and within weeks, funds will be issued to those affected.

Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture

“The ministry engaged the Caribbean Development Bank and other agencies; we have a two million-dollar loan which we will use to give to the farmers as inputs for the subsequent crop so it comes back. That’s fertilizers and whatever else they need.  We needed to know all the farmers and register them and know where they are and know who they are so that it was a transparent and up front thing and would not go into any political criticism where yo only di help this one. So that’s what the ministry did, devoid of all the politics, so that when the assistance comes it will be on a prorate basis per tonnage of farmers. You know we gave out the aid to the other farmers already and that ranged from about two hundred dollars to nine thousand three hundred.”

Minister Hulse and McLachlan also spoke projects going forward.

Mac McLachlan

“Our key focus areas for this year is completing our investment in producing added value sugars which should be completed later this month. That’s the direct consumption phase two investment, twenty million U.S. dollars, to enable us to produce a much higher quantity of value added direct consumption sugars. We need to focus on the core challenges we have of climate change, water management, irrigation, drainage, all of the things associated to make this a stronger business in the future.”

Godwin Hulse

“We are negotiating with the World Bank a large loan to do water management which is very important. And there will be various types of facilities, but the whole idea is…for example all the rains that are falling in January here, if we can catch it and conserve it and store it to then use for animals and plants. So those are the programmes we are looking at.”

Channel 5