Although change in life is constant, adapting to change is not always easy especially when it seems to conflict with tradition. The sugar industry of Belize currently finds itself at a crossroads, as the global market challenges require significant changes to many traditional industry practices to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Belize Sugar Industries Ltd (BSI) is implementing several projects to help improve the sustainability of the industry. For the 2016-2017 Crop Season, BSI launched a project to introduce 49 sugar cane farmers from the north, south, east and west of the sugar belt to mechanical harvesting. More than 17,000 tons of cane were mechanically harvested with an average cost saving of BZ$ 6 per ton of cane for farmers.
“I like the idea of change and I am a person who likes to try different things. I have seen the mechanical harvesters work in the United States as well as in the fields of BSI [Belize Sugar Industries Ltd] and I believe they can work in my fields. It would be very good if other farmers would join the program and try it. I believe they would be very comfortable with the results and they will see more benefits with this way of harvesting cane.”
– Gregorio Espiritu, Progressive Farmer
The sugar industry of Belize has traditionally relied almost exclusively on manual harvesting of sugarcane. This has been a reliable system over the years, creating employment and ensuring cane delivery to the mill. However, there are a number of challenges moving forward. The labor force available for manual harvesting is decreasing and fluctuates during the crop season. In addition, the lifting of the constraints on Beet sugar production in the European Union (EU) and the consequent projected drop in sugar prices requires greater efficiency and reduced production costs, if farmers are to remain sustainable.
Over the years, the increase in cane cutting and delivery costs have also reduced the net income of farmers. This mechanical harvesting project allowed these farmers to respond to the shortage of manual labor, harvest their fields in large contiguous blocks, eliminate unnecessary tasks and activities and consequently reduce their harvesting and delivery costs by an average of BZ$ 6 per ton of cane. Not only did they benefit economically, but have also become positive and progressive role models for the industry.
Medium-sized farmer, Francisca Mendez, was quick to endorse the project because of the results she experienced, “One of the benefits was that I was able to harvest my fields quickly. It didn’t take much time and I didn’t have to pay people to burn my fields or open fire paths. The costs were lower when compared to other reaping groups and this helped me a lot as I was able to purchase fertilizer for my cane fields with the additional money saved under the project.”
Equally satisfied with the outcome, Remijio Sanchez praised the project, “We have to be realistic. What we need right now are activities and projects which will save us and help us have more money in our pockets. The costs of living are very high right now. If you have any child going to school, then you have to re-think your costs. Before, sometimes I had to adjust from my salary to pay for harvesting and delivery costs. Under this project, I had money left and I was able to pay the college fees for my son.”
Through this model behavior change project of Mechanical Harvesting, BSI has been able to demonstrate the benefits of reducing harvesting and production costs through block harvesting as well as strengthened the communication bridge with farmers through
engagement and direct contact with them.