Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Peter Espeut | Is Jamaica farming the fool?

Published:Friday | December 9, 2016 | 12:00 AM

On my visit to deep rural France last month, I spent time with a friend on an organic farm. It is a medium-sized farm by French standards - about 400 hectares - and has olive groves and fields of wheat, lavender, thyme and other aromatics, among other crops.

Hives of bees are on the fringes of the fields, producing thyme and lavender-flavoured organic honey for a speciality market, while pollinating the crops in the field, making them more productive.

The centrepiece of the farm is a 'works yard' with an industrial steam distillation plant, wherein essential oils and essences from the aromatics are extracted. There is also an electrically operated mill to thresh the wheat and a plant for extracting olive oil at the time of the olive harvest.

The modern machinery stands in stark contrast to the rustic ruins of old windmill towers that dot the French countryside. France, at least in this region, has certainly modernised its agriculture into agro-industry.

What is remarkable about this organic farm with its fields and factory and substantial and varied output is that it has only one employee!

My friend Adrien, who has a master's degree in environmental science, drives the tractor with an attachment that ploughs the relatively flat fields, and with another attachment that plants the various seeds, and later, with still another attachment that harvests the crops.

 

Increase in output

 

By himself, Adrien operates the industrial steam, distillation equipment, extracting aromatic essences not only from plants on his employer's farm, but also from other farms for a fee. He alone also threshes the wheat and extracts the olive oil using modern machinery, but at the time of the olive harvest, he may hire two or three workers to walk through the olive groves, shaking the olives from the trees where they fall on to sheets on the ground from where they are gathered into bins; but he drives the tractor with the trailer, which collects the bins and takes them to the works yard for olive oil extraction.

All over the developed world, agricultural output is increasing, but the number of workers in the agricultural sector is decreasing. How is this possible? Because in the developed world, labour-intensive agricultural production is being replaced with capital-intensive production, like what I observed first-hand in deep-rural France last month.

This frees up the rural population to engage in other enterprises and the young to get themselves educated. On the Friday, I was invited to a social evening attended by about a dozen French young people. One of them had recently obtained a vintage machine to make crepes, and he invited a few friends around to test it out, along with some local wine. The young people were mostly university students and graduates, and the vegetable crepes followed by chocolate crepes were delectable - and so was the wine.

How is Jamaican agriculture going to compete with integrated operations like the one I described above? Jamaican agricultural interests have resisted mechanisation, preferring to maximise the employment of unskilled persons rather than maximising efficiency, output, and profits. To make it worse, we have designed our education system to produce large numbers of unskilled labourers suitable for cane fields and coffee pieces.

If we had mechanised our cane production, and educated the people of George's Plain, and the plains of Vere and St Dorothy, to be productive professionals and entrepreneurs, where might we be today? We preferred integrated rural underdevelopment.

 

Didn't last

 

I shared this story with someone who had almost a better one. Her daughter, who lived in Florida, was transferred to California, and she hired a moving company to ship her furniture and other household effects. The same woman who took her order over the telephone, drove up (alone) in the moving truck, drove off the forklift, loaded her stuff into the pods with the help of the client, used the forklift to load the truck, pulled out her invoice book, collected the payment, and drove off with the shipment.

The Jamaican woman telling me the story shared with me that she tried starting a retail business in Montego Bay along those same lines, i.e., that she tried to hire someone who would help to unload the trucks, stock the shelves, deal with the customers, and keep the store clean. No one lasted more than two weeks. Not only did they complain about too much work, but also that some of the tasks were beneath them.

It is not only those at the lower end of the scale that have work-ethic problems. Our race and class problems may be the biggest obstacle to us achieving substantial economic growth anytime soon.

Increased use of technology in modern Jamaica will displace Jamaican jobs. We must improve our education system quickly. Otherwise, we are headed for social upheaval.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.