National Flour Mills yesterday admitted that its rice mill “suffered breakdowns in the drying process in the last few months” but denied over 200 tonnes of locally produced rice was left to rot.
In response to the Sunday Guardian lead story—Rotting Rice…$400,000 in paddy left to waste at NFM mill—the company said given the age of the Carlsen Field rice mill, spare parts were “sometimes difficult to find and can result in delays in effecting repairs.”
The latest breakdown at the mill took place last Friday with the conveyor belt which is expected to be repaired today, the company said.
Yesterday’s story claimed that the mill had been non-functional since November last year. Farmers claimed they have been delivering supplies and are being paid $2,000 a tonne for their produce which has been left idle in a growing heap.
The company said that during the current paddy season an average of 120 metric tonnes of paddy is brought in each week by farmers.
NFM said there was currently 190 metric tonnes of paddy in the shed, which was expected to be processed over the next five to ten business days.“The paddy currently in the shed would not be lost but would be dried and stored in our silos for further processing during the next two weeks. It must be noted that the drying process, along with the de-hulling of the paddy, removes the moisture and the hull which is the area of the paddy currently exposed. The hull that is removed is allowed to decompose and is collected by the Ministry of Agriculture to be used as manure. The on-site laboratory at Carlsen Field tests materials at the various stages of processing to ensure that there is no contamination,” the company said.
The company disputed the newspaper report that the plant had been down since November and claimed that if that was the case there would be over 120 metric tonnes of paddy on the ground.
It also challenged the claim that “…some 200 tonnes of rice valued at approximately $400,000 is currently being left to rot.”
In a text response yesterday, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat said he was aware of a breakdown at the rice mill since February.
Rambharat said the failure by NFM to mill, package and sell rice to customers was a slap in the face to farmers and taxpayers. Rambharat said the matter was being addressed by NFM’s line minister and Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon.
Rambharat said that on February 14, he met with representatives of the rice sector and was informed of the situation.
“The CEO’s of NFM and ADB were present. The meeting was to discuss the review of the last crop, discuss the upcoming harvest, update on the proposed divestment of the Carlsen Field mill and the continued government support,” Rambharat said.
He added, “The matter of the paddy rotting was raised with the CEO. Any failure by NFM to mill and place local rice on the shelf for human consumption is a slap in the face for rice farmers and taxpayers.”
Rambharat said that Government’s support for local rice production and sale was deliberate.
“The expectation is that the rice will be milled, packaged and sold,” Rambharat said.
Over the past few months Rambharat has been encouraging the planting and consumption of local rice. Hundreds of acres of ricelands in the Oropouche basin have already been destroyed by the intrusion of salt water while valuable lagoon lands in Woodland, Debe, San Francique have been backfilled and used for home construction.
Contacted yesterday, Minister Gopee-Scoon could not say whether any disciplinary action could be taken against anyone at NFM. Gopee-Scoon said a team from NFM visited the milling complex yesterday and prepared a full report on the alleged wastage. She said, however, that much of what was carried on the newspaper was erroneous.
Meanwhile, UNC Chairman David Lee yesterday said Gopee-Scoon should resign because of the wastage. “Given the media report that over 200 tonnes of rice valued at $400,000 is currently being left to rot, the question must be asked as to why didn’t the NFM mill the rice which would have produced food for the population as well as save on foreign exchange which is used to import rice,” Lee said.
He added, “Our national economy is facing very strenuous times and a scandal of wastage such as this warrants the resignation of both the NFM CEO and minister of trade as both have forgone their responsibility to effective use of taxpayers dollars as well as commitment to national food security.”
He also said a number of questions surround the impending sale of the rice mill “such as to why didn’t the mill continue functioning until it’s sale therefore increasing its value as well as who is the Government’s preferred buyer.”
In its statement, NFM said annually, rice farmers deliver between 2,000 and 2,500 metric tonnes of paddy to the Carlsen Field plant for processing.
“This works out to be an average of 200 metric tonnes per month. However, due to the seasonal nature of the crop, the current period (October to March) generally sees heightened activity as farmers harvest and deliver their crops,” the statement said.
“The paddy is usually processed within one to ten days of delivery depending on the amount of moisture. The initial stage involves using the open storage shed to spread the paddy which also assists in moisture reduction. The paddy is then dried mechanically in a gas fired system. It should be noted that the equipment used to dry and process paddy was installed over 25 years ago and consequently requires regular maintenance due to breakdowns and deterioration in performance during use.
The market in Trinidad and the region is mainly for parboiled rice, which the Carlsen Field plant does not have the capability to produce. The current divestment of the rice mill is seeking an investor who will be able to take over, upgrade and expand the operations of the Carlsen Field rice mill. This process is expected to be completed by June, 2017,” NFM said.
The mill is up for sale and accounting firm PriceWaterhouse is assisting NFM with the divestment process.
“This process allows for local or regional investors to purchase the assets and lease the facilities and land to continue the development of the local rice industry. Potential investors, who may be short-listed as a result of this very transparent process, will be required to engage the local farmers as part of the finalisation of their investment proposals,” NFM said.