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LOOKING BACKWARD/LOOKING FORWARD - Agriculture: The pathway to Jamaica's food security and economic independence

Published:Saturday | January 3, 2015 | 1:00 AM
Marlene Jackson (centre) in her dasheen field with Winston Smith (left), extension officer at the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, and two of her workers, Sheldon Hill (second left) and Winston Jackson. - File
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Norman Grant, Contributor

Last year, the agriculture sector was characterised by successes, trials (some fiery), losses and hope.

Our 228,000 farmers, with support from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), the Rural Agricultural Development Authority and other agencies, have gone beyond themselves and have produced to meet the demanding but desirable job of feeding this countrys 2.7 million population.

The farmers have also helped to prevent our import bill of US$1 billion from ballooning and have kept the sector growing to assist the country once more to meet the terms under the International Monetary Fund extended fund facility. The sector continues to contribute 6.7 per cent to GDP and create employment for close to 19 per cent of the labour force, (close to 200,000 persons) only to be marginally behind the retail sector.

The agricultural sector has performed remarkably well. There was an increase in production year to year, when we compare 2013 to 2014, and by year end, it was projected that the domestic crop production would surpass the 614,912 tonnes of food produced in 2013.

For the first and second quarters of 2014, we experienced positive growth of 12 and 22 per cent, respectively, over 2013. However, because of the worst period of drought experienced by Jamaica in close to a century, more than 18,000 farmers were affected in all crop categories, with estimated losses of J$1 billion.

This resulted in the first production decline in 2014, where the sector registered a 21 per cent decline for the third quarter that is close to 34,000 metric tonnes of produce, less than the production of the third quarter of 2013.

POSITIVE GROWTH

Even with this, however, the net result was still a positive growth close to the end of 2014, when compared to prior year productions. The JAS wishes to commend the Government and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for the granting of $150 million to assist the affected farmers. This drought and many other disasters in the past have again brought into sharp focus a long-articulated view by the JAS for a dedicated Disaster Response Fund that will assist farmers.

I was delighted to participate in the passage of the bill to amend the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Act, which will give birth to the establishment of the National Disaster Fund, to be financed by the Consolidated Budget and building fees from parish councils.

The 228,000 farmers and the JAS wish to commend the Government for this game-changer. The JAS would like to see this fund operational for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with seed funding of at least $500 million from the Consolidated Fund, with other funding from building fees from the parish councils and also multilateral grant funding.

The JAS also welcomes the launch of the National Animal Identification and Traceability System, which is aimed at tagging 60,000 heads of cattle and helping to tackle the $6-billion cancer of praedial larceny. The JAS has asked the agriculture ministry to extent this to goats and sheep.

We must, at this stage, pause once again to express our regret and sadness at the passing of some of our agriculture stalwarts during the year. Among them was former Governor General Sir Howard Cooke, who, throughout his life and career as teacher, minister of government, and even in his retirement, remained a fully active farmer. No superlative is too good in describing the work of the Honourable Roger Clarke, whose work and heart from birth to death remained dedicated to the sector.

Clarkes influence during his years as minister was full of commitment and purpose, and even in his death, he was able to bring an exceptional focus to agriculture, as he was certainly one of the most popular ministers of the century.

These were the two gentlemen, along with then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson whom I approached, as president of the JAS, when I came to office in 2003, for support to relaunch the Grow What We Eat Campaign, and they gave it their total support.

The death of Clarke brought new leadership to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, now headed by Derrick Kellier and Minister of State Luther Buchanan, with the highly regarded Permanent Secretary Donovan Stanberry. The sector has embraced the new leadership and we focus on the expanded role that agriculture will have on the true and real growth of the Jamaican economy.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR

The highlight of the year for the sector was the performance of the Jamaica 4-H Clubs, which was initially formed by the JAS and is now an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture.

The organisation was able to increase its membership to 86,428 in 1,068 clubs across Jamaica, making it the largest youth organisation in the English-speaking Caribbean and the fifth-largest 4-H membership in the world.

The contribution of the more than 5,000 4-H volunteer leaders, working with the staff to provide clubites with more than 140, 000 training opportunities, is notable. The organisation has also forged partnerships with other groups to train 723 underserved youth in vocational skills.

The 4-H was able to attract increased investment in the youth in agriculture sector, with subvention of more than $200 million; external grants and donations of approximately $110 million, and $191 million estimated as the cost of volunteer support over the year. The 4-H movement must be credited for the reduction of the average age of the Jamaican farmer from 60s to mid-50s and also the significant increase in youth opting for training in agriculture.

Investments in the sector this year were led by Red Stripe, which could see the annual production and demand for sweet cassava growing from 21,000 tonnes to 75,000 tonnes, and Jamaica Broilers, which invested in corn, complemented by its investment in the production of poultry, along with Caribbean Broilers and the thousands of small poultry farmers.

The investments in the agro-parks of 8,000 hectares in the nine established facilities and the plan for an additional 8,000 hectares of land in agro-parks in Westmoreland, St Mary and St James were good moves.

In 2003, the Eat Jamaican campaign was launched as a joint initiative between the JAS and the Ministry of Agriculture, this is one of the most impactful initiatives undertaken in the sector.

In 2003, the annual production was at 491,473 tonnes. At 2013, this had moved to 614,912 tonnes, representing a 25 per cent growth over the 11 years of the campaign. It is clear that a part of the increase in production can be attributed to the campaign and the national sensitisation activities that take place annually. It is projected that the production figures at the end of 2014 will surpass the 2013.

The campaign has also helped to slow the rate of imports, where we had a weighted average per annum growth of US$100 before the launch, to US$60 million over the 11 years of the campaign. It could, therefore, be argued that this campaign has saved the Jamaican economy US$500 million over the period, and if it saved it, then it earned it.

TRADITIONAL CROPS STILL RULE

Traditional exports, including sugar, bananas, coffee, and cocoa, continue to be a significant contributor to Jamaicas foreign-exchange earnings. The sugar cane industry continues to lead in export earnings in the sector. Jamaica has the best coffee and cocoa in the world, but we have not been able to maximise earnings. Cocoa production is still five times less than demand, while Jamaicas Blue Mountain Coffee has fallen to an all-time 25-year low, moving from a production of six million pounds to 1.6 million pounds.

Coffee production has been affected by berry borer and leaf rust diseases, compounded by low prices five years ago. The industry, now fully in private hands, is working to increase production to 4.5 million pounds in five years and projected foreign exchange earning of US$100 million. The Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee farmers are now enjoying the highest payment in the history of the coffee industry, moving from $2,500 per box in 2009-2010 to $7,200 per box for the current crop.

Going forward, technology will be of primary importance to the future of the agricultural sector. One challenge which can be addressed by technology is the issue of marketing. The absence of a modern system of marketing has meant that the bulk of Jamaicas domestic agricultural produce is being distributed in what can be described as an ad hoc manner. These informal market systems contribute in no small way to reduced profitability, disincentives to farmers as a result of post harvest losses and high transaction costs. The instability of supply and quality of produce add to the costs of local agro-processors, exporters and end users of farm products and a reduction in overall national competitiveness.

CALL CENTRE

The JAS, through financing from the Universal Service Fund, is addressing these challenges by establishing the JAS Market Information Centre. This is a 20-seat call centre administering a software platform that will provide marketing information and facilities for completing buying/selling transactions, between produce buyers and the farmer (producer).

Farmers will be able to access the system by phone (voice or text) or by any other communication device connected to the Internet. The JAS will be working with buyers and farmers to establish contracts between them, assuring a future market for the farmer at the time of planting. A farmers help desk will also be available to assist with planting and cultivating issues.

The agriculture sector is alive and well in Jamaica, we are now poised for growth and only need the enabling resources of the Government, allied with investments from the private sector, to confront and overcome the issues of marketing, adequate irrigation, and energy, to increase production and develop our traditional and non-traditional crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry through value-added technologies, as well as producing the highest-quality fresh produce.

Yes, agriculture can and will let us advance to real independence, with economic and food security through the lifeblood and the bedrock of sustainable development.

Senator Norman Washington Grant is the president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society. Email feedback to editorial@gleanerjm.com or jaspresident2012@gmail.com.