They have given themselves the acronym FUN, but when they met at several locations in Liberia's southeast last week, members of the Farmers Union Network realized that they were faced not with matters of fun but with very serious challenges.
The farmers took a realistic approach to the problems at hand. Rather than take a general approach to the issues, they realized it was better to hold their consultations in each of the five southeastern counties–Grand Gedeh, River Gee, Grand Kru, Maryland and Sinoe counties. The aim was to determine the problems specific to each. In the process, however, they discovered that the 500 or more southeastern farmers recruited to plant rice faced the same problems: the lack of follow-up on lowland prepared in each county for the rice project of the West African Agricultural Productivity Program; the 50 tons of seed rice that should have come from the Ministry of Agriculture and from OXFAM, the British-based NGO that helps farmers, among others; the lack of tools to execute the project; and the absence of sufficient agricultural extension agents in the entire sub-region.
Our Farm Correspondent, Judoemue Kollie, who in Tuesday's Daily Observer reported on the consultations in the five southeastern counties, quoted FUN president, the Rev. Robert Bimba, as saying that these farmers also lack agricultural loans, extension services and access to information. This has caused many of the farmers to abandon the lowlands where they were to engage in rice production and shift upland.
In this one instance, we are playing not only with the southeast but with our staple, rice. Hasn't this newspaper time and again over the years pleaded with the Agriculture Minister to extend its Extension Services to farmers throughout the country? At the onset of her second tenure as Agriculture Minister, Dr. Florence Chenoweth told this newspaper that hundreds of Ag extension agents were being trained at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI), at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI) and elsewhere for deployment around the country.
With few of them seen anywhere, it is seems that Minister misled the newspaper. During the Vision 2030 Consultations around the country, farmers throughout complained about the absence of Ag extension agents in their areas. Todee in particular, an extensive farming area in Montserrado County, complained that they had not seen an ag extension agent there in 15 years. But the Minister said it was "not true."
A Minister of government cannot afford to be deceptive in the performance of her duties–that is a recipe for trouble, especially in the vital area of farming, in which the vast majority of our people are engaged.
Since the government has failed effectively to address the unemployment problem, and tens of thousands of our people, especially our youth, are unemployed, it seems to us imperative that our farmers are told the truth and adequately provided the tools and other resources they need to be successful.
This newspaper has also for a long time urged the Agriculture Ministry to see as one of its most serious challenges the shepherding (steering) of our farmers out of subsistence farming and into the money economy. But it seems that nearly nine years of this administration we are just as further from that goal as we were during the pre-war years.
Whether or not Florence Chenoweth realizes this, it is a serious indictment not only on her administration as Agriculture Minister, but also on that of her boss, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. We thought that people appointed to important public positions would do their utmost to help their President accomplish critical national goals, even if this President has the penchant (inclination) to protect and even retain non-performing officials in her administration.
This newspaper has frequently asked who can afford to ignore the southeast, already for decades one of the country's most neglected regions? But the more we have written, the more we, too, have been ignored. The Agriculture Minister is on record as saying she does not even "read the tabloids anymore." A tabloid is a newspaper that turns everything into a scandal, NEVER looking at the positive side of anything. Believe it or not, she casts the Daily Observer in that category!
Well, that is what is being said TODAY. But we all work not for today, but for tomorrow, for the future. When Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth is no longer on the stage, how will the Liberian people remember her, or the administration she served?