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The Resurgence of Big Falls Rice Mill after Six Years

Mar 15, 2023

The Resurgence of Big Falls Rice Mill after Six Years

The Belize Marketing and Development Corporation is focusing on the return of rice production in southern Belize. It’s been six years since the mill has not been churning, but earlier this month, production restarted. Last year, the B.M.D.C. accepted rice paddy from farmers, but it was not for transportation to the millers in Cayo, but rather for its own production at the Big Falls Rice Mill in the Toledo District, which it manages.  It is a welcomed move by stakeholders in the industry as it is expected to see the once industrial lifeblood of the region revived. Through consultation, milpa and mechanized farmers have been able to tap into the technical support being provided by the B.M.D.C. and already, the 2023 yields are projected to be less than a million pounds of rice. News Five’s Duane Moody reports on the resurgence of Big Falls Rice Mill.

Duane Moody, Reporting

From farm to table, rice is a staple in most Belizean diets. Used to prepare the traditional rice and beans or fluffy coconut-infused white rice, the grain can also be found in cuisines across diverse local cultures. There are many well-known packaged rice products found in stores, but the resurgence of Big Falls Rice in Belize will see a new label and product entering the market.

Eva Bernadette Flowers

Eva Bernadette Flowers, Branch Manager, Belize Marketing and Development Corporation

“Last year we did trials for milling and this year we are actually milling and we have our own label.”

Established in 1961, rice production was once the biggest industry in southern Belize. Back then, the paddy was simply bought from farmers, cleaned, dried and transported by boat to Belize City for milling.  But in 1979, the Big Falls Rice Mill was installed; it easily became a source of food security for the country and the backbone of economic activity for thousands of farmers in the south. It operated for decades, but over time, farmers turned to alternative livelihoods. Production dwindled and milling was reduced to a few hundred thousand pounds annually, before completely shutting down in 2016.

Eva Bernadette Flowers

“Production increased from three million to four million to seven, all the way up to almost nine million pounds. That was in the late nineties. Then in mid-2000, that was when we start to see this decrease. Our older farmers, they were more into farming. Our new generation, and I don’t give them wrong, if they want to venture out for different kind of work as in offices, in the tourism. There is where we saw the decrease in the production of rice farming. And also, I think you heard about the rosewood that they were cutting down, a lot of farmers went that way too.”

The mill is now up and running and will produce approximately eight hundred thousand pounds of rice this year.  It is a far cry from what it once was, but a team of six, headed by Operations Manager Jorge Sanchez, has been tasked with the job at the mill.  It’s a tedious process that takes almost a year and begins in the fields.

Reginald Jackson

Reginald Jackson, Mechanical Rice Farmer

“You gotta to put in water and rotavate it. Then we sow the seeds and plant it, scatter it with a little machine and then from there, about twenty days time we start to spray. This is crystal rice and it take like one hundred and twenty days to harvest from the time you plant.”

Jorge Sanchez

Jorge Sanchez, Operations Manager, Big Falls Rice Mill

“We started to get out product in August, September, October, November December, January February right now. And now, when we are doing our milling, we don’t have any problem because it is very dry and easy to shell.”

In Toledo, there are only about a hundred milpa farmers and three mechanized rice farmers. Milpa farming is laborious – these farms are located primarily in remote communities and the harvesting methods are traditionally done with the use of a unique grass knife. In Aguacate Village, Juan Cuc braves the sweltering afternoon heat to single-handedly prepare the land, harvest and then transport the paddy by sacks twenty-six miles away to Big Falls on an earthen road.

Pedro Pop

Pedro Pop, BMDC Stock & Grading Clerk, Big Falls Rice Mill

“The furthest we have recorded milpa farmers bringing to the complex is Machakil Ha and Dolores, and those are the most remote areas of Toledo. And they would need to commute that all the way to the mill – it is very far and costly. For the milpa, they would have to manually do everything. So they would do it on a smaller scale and try to dry it out and make sure that it is clean and then truck it from here all the way to whichever village they are to all the way to the complex to BMDC. Versus the mechanical, everything is done by machinery. From the time they do land preparation. It is easier, but it is costlier. They would use ploughs to do the land preparation and then they would use boom sprayers – so it is all done mechanically.”

Reginald Jackson

“I start this rice business from about thirty years aback. This little field that I do is just about thirty-two acres just to get rice seed and sell a little to the mill. This is mostly like manual work, not too much machine because due to the water, we don’t want rocks and thing in there. So I use about nine to ten man to work when to plant, when to spray and when to fertilize and weeding out and so.”

Consultations have been ongoing with farmers who have gone dormant. The rice fields are there and the Belize Marketing and Development Corporation has the resources to provide the technical support needed. The goal is to return the mill to about six million pounds by the next cycle. Stock and Grading Clerk Pedro Pop says that there are four varieties of rice.

Pedro Pop

“The varieties are crystal, blue banner, bel paDna – that is for the milpa, they use the blue banner and bel paDna – and the CARDI-70 is also a variety that we are trying to see how we can work away from that and just keep it with crystal.”

Duane Moody

“Can the mill go back to where it once was in terms of its production and yield?”

Pedro Pop

“I believe it can, the possibility is there, but I believe it is more mechanised than milpa because the amount of labour that will be needed is more in milpa versus mechanised and it is far easier and then you produce more.”

Technical features aside, the revival of the Big Falls Rice Mill is far-reaching. It will not only boost economic activity in the Toledo District, but there is real potential for export to the region – to meet supply and demand.

Jose Abelardo Mai

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture, Food Security & Enterprise

“The rice in Toledo can easily graduate to being organic rice, which is a speciality rice and so we have to look at that. At this time right now, the price of a product is set by the supply and demand. There is great demand for rice now in neighbouring Guatemala. The price for food, the demand is going up. The demand in our region for rice is growing and this puts our farmers in a good position. Why? Because we have enough land to expand rice production. Now, if we can get the Toledo rice one step further to be organic, we are in a better position.”

The product is currently being bagged in twenty and hundred pound sacks and can be found on shelves in the south. The market product is usually ninety-five percent whole grain. Duane Moody for News Five.