In 2017, a group of growers on Aruba had the idea of unionizing the agriculture sector, and in 2021, this idea became a reality, and United Farmers Aruba became the first legal association for the sector.
Now, the association represents 23 farmers, of which 5 are commercial growers, providing retail and restaurants on a weekly basis. These farms are Cunucu fresh, Happyponics, STR agriculture, Farmacure Fungi, and 297 farms whose owner Gregory Fung-A-Fat is also the last active co-founder of United Farmers Aruba.
"Our goal is to be the liaison between the government and commercial farmers. We have a lot of items we're fighting for, such as more property and better prices for water and electricity," says Gregory.
Current board of United Farmers Aruba, Left to right: Giselle Lacle (secretary), Gregory Fung-A-Fat (President), Stanley Brown (Finance)
Aruba still imports most of what they consume, so agriculture has been a topic of discussion for a while now, and due to covid, this was also accelerated as the island's food dependency became even more obvious.
"After covid, the appetite for agriculture grew on the island and the government as well. They want to make the island more resilient and self-sufficient but do not have the funds to do so right now. All investments are either private investors or banks. However, even the banks are hesitant due to the high-risk investments. What we do have now are agricultural loans, which work with a similar structure to the Netherlands."
The issue with energy
The association has a list of priorities that they try to resolve as fast as possible. On top of that list is the issue regarding electricity. Most of the new commercial farms on Aruba are hydroponic and consume a lot of electricity. However, still being a smaller sector, the farmers on the island pay the highest tariffs on electricity. On average, about 35% of the operation costs are due to the price of energy.
"We're trying to have the government understand that if agriculture is to be a new economic pillar for the island, we need to have some concessions. We know that we can't get it for free, but why do we have to pay higher tariffs than the hotels? The government still sees us as a small commercial operation, but if they want this to be a promising sector, we need to find more beneficial tariffs."
The signing of the MOU between United Farmers Aruba, Santa Rosa, the Minister of Agriculture, and the Minister of Economy
Prices in the market
Another challenge the association is tackling is protecting their market and making sure the local produce can flourish on the island. One such initiative is the farmers market organized by 297 Farms, STR agriculture, and Happyponics, where many local producers can sell their excess goods and show the quality of their products.
But it's not quality that's the issue. It's pricing. Everyone would like their produce as cheap as possible, and the cheapest one on the market is imports.
"In the US, for example, sometimes they have so much excess produce that they sell it at a special rate just to have it taken off their hands. We can't compete with that price dumping. To counter this, we proposed a type of protection from this practice to the government in order for us to be able to flourish in this type of economy. We don't want a monopoly; we want a fair competition."
"We're trying to have a platform where neighboring islands have an association like United Farmers so we can work together, exchange information, and help each other with the problems every island nation faces, such as electricity and water prices. The idea is already out there, but there are no associations besides us yet. We hope to see this in the future," Gregory concludes.