By DANA SMITH
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government is calling on local farmers and farmer-hopefuls to come forward and receive assistance in the form of labour or financial benefits.
The scheme, it is hoped, will help address both the country's high unemployment rate, and considerable food import bill.
V Alfred Gray, Minister of Agriculture, Marine Resources and Local Government, said yesterday talks with Bahamians involved in agriculture and mariculture are "going well", but more farmers are needed to help spend his ministry's $1 million allotment.
"Talks are going well, people are coming forward - not in the sizeable numbers that I would want, but those who are coming forward are coming forward with plans that we certainly can look at and assist them with," he said.
"But I am still looking for a few major farmers who would want to do hundreds of acres of something in order to make the required dent in the unemployment situation."
Large-scale farmers are needed as opposed to "small farmers" whose operations are usually run like a family business, Mr Gray explained.
"I'm talking about a big farmer who will employ at least 50, 60 people to work the farm," he said. "The government is willing to assist them in whatever way - concessions, financial assistance by way of land clearing or the irrigation process, we help them with fencing their property so that thieves don't go in.
"We have a lot of things going on and they just need to come forward to access what we have. I have a million dollars to spend and I want people to spend it in pursuit of our country's food security."
The minister added: "Come forward. Even if you're not farmers yet, we can make farmers of them if you at least have the interest."
Just over a month ago, Mr Gray announced the government is looking at providing financial grants to farmers and increasing duty rates on imported food.
The aim, he said, is to level the playing field between Bahamian producers and foreigner farmers.
"As you know the Bahamas imports more than 90 per cent of what we eat. To the extent that we are able, I am hoping we can reduce that to 60 to 70 per cent," he said.
Mr Gray also said Family Island farms are suffering because most of the food consumed is imported.
"We have a chicken farm in Abaco that is dying because of the importation of chicken," he said. "To the extent to which I am allowed to either eliminate the importation or perhaps drastically reduce it, I am prepared to do that in the shortest amount of time," he said.