Saturday, February 17, 2018

Dhano Sookoo

Flying the flag for agriculture


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Growing up at Todds Road in Caparo, life was tough for the little girl named Dhano.

Her father died when she was 10 and her mother was forced to provide for four young children single-handedly.

The only sure way to have food to eat was to plant the land all around the little board house that was the family home.

Dhano was the second child. She worked the land beside her mother. She entered into the Junior Secondary and Senior Comprehensive school system. Leaving school, she went back to agriculture and related activities. She tried her hand at market vending and at exporting agricultural produce, then went into livestock rearing.

Today, the name Dhano Sookoo is synonymous with agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago. Married to Sunil Sookoo, a livestock farmer, and the mother of five children, Sookoo, 40, is the President of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago. She is serving her fourth consecutive year as president, first being elected to the post in 2008. She is the second female in the 172-year history of the Society to hold the position.

Under her tenure, the Society has grown from a membership of less than 400 to over 6,000 and 68 affiliated bodies.

"ASTT was able to bring farmers together on one platform," said Sookoo.

As a voice of agriculture, she has called for food availability for all citizens to take priority in supporting a call for a land use policy.

"We cannot expect to feed ourselves when land is taken away from farmers," she said.

She also wants more access roads, water for agriculture, praedial larceny squads, financing for agriculture and proper marketing.

Last year, Sookoo answered the call for help by cocoa farmers and spearheaded the setting up of two fermentary boxes to process cocoa of high quality and standards.

"We have managed to bring together 23 cocoa farmers' associations and by distributing cocoa tools, we assisted farmers in pruning the trees on estates scattered across the country," she said.

In collaboration with the Association of Professional Beekeepers, the ASTT also helped that industry by suppying 63 starter colonies which helped increase honey production and bring down the cost of honey on the local market.

"I am out there in the fields every day. I am a farmer by heart and when the day dawns, I begin to work and stop long after the darkness falls," said Sookoo.

Her work also sees her sitting in decision-making positions she is the lone female director at the Caribbean Farmers' Network (CaFAN) which involves 14 Caricom countries and has a membership of over 500,000.

Sookoo also serves on the Trinidad and Tobago Transport Board and she is also the lone female on the board of the Estate Management Business Development Company Limited (EMBDC) with 11 men.

She would move mountains to help farmers, but luckily her job is not physically strenuous but is about listening to the farmers, understanding their needs and then getting the help begging, persuasion and seeing results.

"I went begging to the EMBDC and persuaded them to help in building 17 farmers crossings to allow water to flow into the major water channel, feeding the Felicity Food Crop project. In Plum Mitan, farmers who suffered from the severe drought last year benefitted from a six-inch water pump, with a capacity of 1,000 gallons per minute pumping water from the Jhagruma Line into the main channels to the food crop area. Through the irrigation initiative, over 500 acres of food crops in the Plum Mitan area, and over five million pounds of sweet potatoes in Felicity were saved," she said.

Under Sookoo's direction, the Society was at the forefront of the rehabilitation of 500 kilometres of agricultural access roads in Mamoral, Tabaquite, Erin, Palo Seco, Tableland, Moruga, Felicity, Cedros, Oropouche, Mon Desir and other areas south of the Caroni River. The Society has also distributed 4,983 citrus plants to 13 farmers' associations at a subsidised rate of $10 each and gave out a total of 24 offspring from 33 goats, and 2 Dorper lambs from 4 sheep to farmers.

The Society also oversaw the training of 41 farmers in tilapia production, bringing the total to 108 farmers trained, as well as the establishment of seven new tilapia farms. In root crop production 435 farmers received training and 12,000 sweet potato cuttings and 25,000 cassava cuttings were distributed, she said.

"I understand agriculture and want to see the industry take top priority. "I motivate people to work and do not hesitate to get my hands dirty while getting the job done," she said.