Wed | Nov 20, 2019

Donovan Stanberry | The proposed Lakes Pen Agri Ventures – A view

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 1:36 AM
Bernard Lodge in St Catherine.
Donovan Stanberry
Gassan Azan
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I read in recent times reports in The Gleaner and the wider press about the proposed Lakes Pen Agri Ventures, on 400 acres of the Bernard Lodge lands in St Catherine being developed by noted businessman Mr Gassan Azan. This development has stimulated significant interest against the background of sustained outcry from the farming community regarding planned displacement of small farmers, now occupying portions of this land, and the wider debate in relation to ceding some of our best agricultural lands to housing and other types of development.

It will be recalled that in March 2018, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the proposed creation of a new town on 4,677 acres of Bernard Lodge lands, largely previously occupied by sugar cane. These lands stretch from Dunbeholden in the west, bordering Highway 2000 on the north and Municipal Boulevard (the ‘I-95’) to the south.

The opposition PNP and the small farmers’ group, as well as the president of the Small Business Association of Jamaica, have been quite vocal in their opposition to this large-scale conversion of agricultural lands to housing and industrial development, and what this will mean for the nation’s food security and water resources. It is not clear whether the fanfare surrounding the launch of this 400-acre high-tech agricultural project was intended to placate the critics.

Without reference to the larger debate on the conversion of agricultural lands to other uses, this proposed development is laudable, given the predominance of small holdings on our agricultural landscape, and how this militates against sustainable production and increasing agricultural productivity generally.

The Jamaican agricultural sector is dominated by a plethora of small farmers – 220,000 of them, based on the last STATIN Census – operating on less than one acre of land on average. To put it more starkly, the 2007 Agricultural Census shows that 75 per cent of our farmers own only 15 per cent of all agricultural lands in Jamaica.

INCREASING URBANIsATION OF JAMAICA

Over the last two agricultural censuses, conducted by STATIN in 1996 and 2007, total lands in agriculture declined from 421,550 hectares to 325,810 hectares, translating to the average farm size moving from 2.17 hectares to 1.4 hectares. Over the same period, the number of farms increased by 18 per cent, that is, from 187,791 to 228.683. This means that effectively more and more farmers are engaging less and less lands.

The above changes in farm sizes and the amount of lands available for agricultural production mirror the increasing urbanisation of Jamaica.

According to data out of the United Nations, if in 1955 only 28.8 per cent of our people were living in urban areas, in 2019 this is now 55 per cent, projected to reach 70.3 per cent by 2050. We therefore have less lands in agriculture and smaller farm sizes, as less lands have to accommodate more farmers.

All of this is happening in the face of declining productivity in agriculture, evidenced by the fact that although some 220,000 people are engaged in agriculture, some 18 per cent of our labour force, the sector is only contributing seven per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP). It is no wonder, therefore, that rural poverty, as reported by the Survey of Living Conditions, in any given year, is consistently higher than urban poverty.

In order to increase productivity in agriculture, as well as production on a sustained basis, we have to engage larger farms. Similarly, through coordinated and deliberate extension service and incentivisation, we can improve productivity among our 220,000 small farmers, through infusion of new technologies of production, expansion of irrigation, and so on.

It is within this context that Gassan Azan’s project must be viewed. High-tech agriculture using greenhouse, hydroponics and other forms of protected agriculture technologies will boost production and productivity. The reported linkage with small farmers, with this high-tech farm serving as a ready market and providing extension, inputs and other technical services, has been a model championed by the Ministry of Agriculture for years. While we support large investments in big farms, we cannot leave our 220,000 farmers behind.

The imperative of increasing farm sizes and access to agricultural lands through deliberate land reform schemes has been recognised by governments over a long time. In the 1970s, we had the Project Land Lease, Pioneer Farms and the Sugar Co-operatives, under which large tracts of private and public lands were made available by the Manley government to small farmers. Large properties in South St James, for example, the Montpelier/Shettlewood, as well as such properties in St Mary as Tryall, Frontier, Gray’s Inn and Fontabelle were the subject of the Project Land Lease initiative.

At the same time, Morelands Farm in Monymusk, Barham in Westmoreland and Salt Pond in St Catherine were part of the Sugar Co-operative programme. While this was laudable, in the case of the Project Land Lease, in many instances the subject lands were never outfitted with the kind of infrastructure required for sustainable and profitable farming.

During my own time at the Ministry of Agriculture, the conceptualisation of the Agro Parks under Minister Christopher Tufton’s tenure and its accelerated implementation under Minister Roger Clarke were intended not just to sequester large tracts of lands to lease to farmers, but to install the requisite infrastructure on these lands – roads, drainage, irrigation and basic post-harvesting facilities, etc., as well as to link these farmers to markets. This also proved to be limited in its success.

PRIVATE SECTOR Expertise IS REQUIRED

The truth is, while huge sums of monies were spent on infrastructure, and while the ministry worked assiduously to link farmers to the market, the private sector has been largely reticent in coming unto these Agro Parks, setting up facilities for sorting, grading, packaging and processing the produce from the Agro Parks, and make such produce ready for our burgeoning tourism market and exports.

The farmer knows how to farm and produce the primary products, but private sector expertise is required to take on the processing, logistics and marketing. Jamaica Broilers has pioneered this approach for years. GraceKennedy was also a pioneer with the Ministry of Agriculture in this area, working with farmers in the Hounslow area. The Red Stripe cassava initiative falls within this framework. Gassan Azan’s entry into this area is therefore consistent with this trend, and is therefore welcomed.

Welcomed as Mr Azan’s project is, we must not be ridiculous in our pronouncement nor look at this development as a panacea for solving our food-security problems.

I was startled, for instance, by the claim attributed to Mr Azan by the media that “this development will produce 17,000 tons each year and we import 40,000 tons; you can see that this is approximately 40 per cent reduction in the import bill if we hit the target”.

I would be happy if the project produces 17,000 tons of vegetables. This will not, however, cause our food import bill to be reduced by 40 per cent. Data from STATIN for 2018 reveal that in that year our food import bill was US$902.35 million, with fresh vegetable imports only accounting for US$20 million, or 2.22 per cent.

In fact, Jamaica is relatively self-sufficient in vegetable. Extremely high tariffs are on most vegetable imports, which are mainly relaxed in the aftermath of natural disasters, when these produce are scarce. The vegetables we normally import are of the more exotic types, required in the tourism industry. If vegetable production is the focus of this venture, then the greatest possibilities are for exports and the tourism sector. Inefficient as our small farmers are, collectively, they satisfy, by and large, our demand for vegetables.

As a country, we need to be more rational and realistic about the issue of food security. Most of the food items we import are products of animal origin, cereal for food and animal feed and semi-processed food for final processing in the manufacturing sector.

A subsequent article will provide some fresh perspectives on food security. Of course, the matter of the use of over 29,000 acres of prime agricultural lands, left vacant by a dying sugar industry, still remains on the table, despite this laudable project. But more on that anon.

Donovan Stanberry, PhD, CD, JP, campus registrar, University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com