Rice industry veteran reflects on early days
Love/hate relationship between farmers and millers endures
By Nills Campbell
May 3, 2000
Some nine years after he called it quits at the Guyana Rice Marketing Board (GRMB), 78-year-old John Baptiste still vividly remembers the evolution of this entity, its years of development and the many crises that confronted it in its early years.
Baptiste ventured into the area of rice export on December 4, 1939, taking home the princely sum of $2.40 British Guiana currency per week.
His well-documented records are carefully stored in several files which he has successfully preserved. The manuscripts are among his treasures, as they record the problems and solutions; difficulties and progress; disappointments and promotions and hopes for the rice industry in his country.
Baptiste's service spanned the lives of five administrations: a colonial government; one under this country's first premier, the late Dr Cheddi Jagan; an interim government; one under its first prime minister the late Forbes Burnham and one under his successor, Desmond Hoyte.
War forced rice regulation
The second world war 1939-1945 had forced the British Governor to establish systems to ensure that the colony did not run short of basic food and other necessities. Fears of impending shortages generally led to hoarding of goods, not only by consumers, but by grocery owners.
Rice had long since been established as the staple food in the colony and the Governor turned his full attention to its protection. These were the circumstances under which the British Guyana Rice Marketing Board (BGRMB) was born. Over the years it has undergone as many change of names as administrations.
Its first chairman was H.E. McDavid who was in effect, the nation's chancellor of the exchequer. The Rice Board was a regulatory body, and legal stipulations ensured that farmers sold their paddy to authorised rice millers, who in turn sold their product to the board. There was also provision for the Board to purchase the commodity directly. In this way, the Governor ensured that whatever supplies of rice were available, there was relatively fair distribution among the population.
Naturally, for such a colony-wide operation there was a fair share of hiccups. Baptiste explained: "Now let us think about grades and monitoring. In the old days the Board had people from the Agriculture Department. To my recollection the first man was a man called George Leitch, the second was Mr Benson and last of all, a guy called Mr Brooks."
He recalled: "The farmers were complaining that they had to purchase bags, pay the millers for milling their paddy, in addition to paying for transportation. Many of them said that they were farming at a loss and some of them pulled out of rice cultivation. Eventually the Board, recognising the danger posed to the rice industry, offered the farmers an increase." The millers also chipped in by cutting down on the milling fees.
"The big problem throughout the years has always been [between] the farmers and the millers. Even up to now you must have read about it. Many of them say you have a mill and I have so many acres of paddy... The millers would take a soil test and would often contend that there was a certain amount of moisture in the paddy, and that only a particular amount of money could be paid for it."
Baptiste said that the farmers were often caught in a spot with millers giving them the take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. This, he said, resulted in a love/hate relationship between these two contributors to the rice industry that has endured.
In the early stages of the Board operation the financial going was good. Workers looked forward to the regular ten per cent annual bonus which was paid out. But there were dull moments too, the retiree recalled. The Board once found itself in financial crisis with a $10 million overdraft at the banks. Cheques issued by the organisation bounced "like bumper balls," Baptiste said.
The bank in an effort to secure its money only gave credit to the BGRMB when a vessel arrived to transport rice, and with the issuing of a letter of credit from the overseas purchasers certifying the money to be paid based on the tonnage of rice being purchased.
Baptiste still has a clear memory of the confusion and near chaos that obtained in those days. "It stagnated the operations. Often we could not do any work, because the millers could not get their money, and the farmers also suffered." The situation on that and on a few other occasions of serious financial shortfall, had been remedied by government intervening and bailing out the Board through financial inputs.
Buckets to bins
In the formative years of the GRMB, bullocks were used to plough the fields and grass knives were used for harvesting and a similar semi-primitive operation took place in the factory.
In those early days, according to Baptiste, rice used to be blended by the use of buckets and spades. However, under the leadership of Peter Bailey, who was also a national cricketer, the system of blending in bins was introduced.
"In those days, they used to make up a blend of 600 bags comprising of various grades. These were extra super, super, number one, number two, number three, and broken. Those grades were blended into two standard grades, called brown A and brown B, which were sold locally. ...a 180-lb bag of rice was sold for $4.25. Those were in the old days you know, a pint of rice used to be a penny," he recalled.
"Of course we used to sell broken grade as well which was intended for stockfeed. We had some problems selling broken rice since some shopkeepers were mixing it with the good rice and selling it to unsuspecting shop keepers.
"The Board moved swiftly, appointing samplers who visited the markets and shops. Many were charged and made to pay small fines since there was no laws as far as I know to send them to jail."
Paddy in bags in those early times used to be transported from the ferry stelling and from the transport goods wharf by donkey carts. He recalled that Stanley Chee-A-Tow, who was also a referee, and T.P. Jaundoo, who had owned King George Hotel were the two men contracted to transport the paddy. They, in turn, hired draymen at the rate of one cent a bag, and this was eventually increased to two cents.
When asked whether the donkey cart was more economical than a motor truck, Baptiste explained, "There was no modern vehicle yet. That was the styling in British Guiana, the transportation was like that at that time."
Baptiste has distinguished himself as one worker who had served in almost every area of the Board's operations--clerical to managerial. But his specialty was rice shipping. Among his experiences of the time he served as 'wharfinger', was the 1977 fire that eventually burned for about one month.
The belief was widely held that the burning of the GRMB wharf, which coincided with the visit of United States UN Ambassador Andrew Young to Guyana, might have been deliberate and part of an anti-America protest. However, according to Baptiste, the bond was packed with rice to the point of almost touching the roof. He believes that dangling electrical wires might have touched the bags and triggered off the fire.
In the 70s thieves would take small boats under the GRMB wharf, remove boards and puncture bags of rice, which would drain into their boats. In order to stamp out this practice, the authorities placed barricades in the river around the bottom of the wharf, sealing it off. During the fire, these barricades prevented proper detection of fire burning at the bottom of piles of bags, resulting in the fire lasting for an entire month.
Baptiste earns a whopping $6,000 a month as pension from the GRMB. And notwithstanding what is perceived to be a lack of recognition at the national level, feels a deep sense of satisfaction that he was able to serve the land of his birth with some measure of distinction, helping to develop a now important industry from its infancy.