While driving through the Trelawny countryside recently, I was taken aback by the many lush agricultural plots that I saw dotting the landscape. I’m not exactly sure why, but I was surprised that farming was still alive and kicking in Jamaica.
A moment’s reflection later and I had to catch myself and wonder, why not? It is truly a dismal thing for me to think that the state of agriculture in Jamaica would be anything but luminous.
Profitability of farming
The profitability of the food industry seems evident in the numbers coming out yearly. In a 2012 article, The Gleaner actually stated that Jamaica had a food import bill of US $700 million, with rice imports alone at US $70 million. That would give you the impression that the business of food production could be nothing but thriving. Even the venerable Dr. Christopher Tufton, a former Minister of Agriculture, alluded to this in his statement around that time:
“Our position is that where we can replace or substitute, this offers tremendous value in both job creation, foreign exchange savings and the vulnerability of over-dependence on imports.”
One needs only to look at the success of local brands such as Grace Kennedy, Lasco and Geddys and think that such a supposition couldn’t be far from the truth. JA Trade and Invest claims that the food export business is a JA $5 billion-per-year business.
“We have to move [production] incrementally up … because we have the markets … the demand is there,” Roger Clarke, Minister of Agriculture has said.
Reduction in farming numbers
The state of affairs is somewhat more dire, however. In fact, the information coming out of the Jamaica Information Service is that there are only 153,652 registered farmers — even though registration is free. Of that number, only about 40,000 are female. STATIN’s figures between 1996 and 2007 show a net 22% reduction in total land in farming. The breakdown shows a 50% reduction in pasture land and a 13% reduction in crop lands. The expectation was a growing agricultural market, but instead we have a burgeoning import food bill and no congruent upticks in local food production.
A closer look at the import/export figure shows a significant disparity between the import and the export bill, which results in a net import cost that successive ministers have tried assiduously to address through various legislative measures. I guess therein begins the seeds of my perception.
Of ‘bad mind and thievery’
The perception is further compounded by personal observation. Even though Trelawny may seem lush, I have seen many other parishes whose lands lie fallow. On the street corners are able-bodied youth quite unwilling to devote energy to making inroads into agriculture with their spare time. Instead, they are much more willing to assist you — illegally, I might add — in the harvesting of your crops. This personal truth is not uncommon. JAS has on record more than 2,100 acts of praedial larceny, of which only 59 have been resolved by local law enforcement. Bear in mind that the vast majority of them have gone unreported. This attitude is a further disincentive for the individuals who fight the cultural perception that agriculture is dirty, low-class work left for those who scarcely can do better, only to be met with “bad mind and thievery.”
Is there hope?
One can only hope that the turnaround in the agricultural sector happens sooner rather than later. Jamaica is in dire need of a path towards self-sustainability within the agro industries. The government has tabled initiatives within its Vision 2030 plan that include:
- Micro-enterprise support of agricultural initiatives
- Proper land utilization and management to check the indiscriminate conversion of rich agricultural lands for urban needs.
- Promotion of environmentally friendly practices (rural and urban).
- Preservation of the character of rural lifestyle and the cultural identity of rural character and spirit.
- Promulgation of ecotourism and heritage tourism investments.
- Participatory planning processes.
The question is really whether these will effectively translate into a cohesive agricultural policy that elicits growth within the industry.