Hard Land, Hard Life - Small farmers in Portland risking life and limb as they struggle to survive
Corey Robinson, Staff Reporter
Fifteen treks each day across the rushing Rio Grande, then a six-hour, life-risking late-night trip twice each week on a market truck into Kingston, all for a few dollars which can hardly support a family.
That is the life of many small farmers in Portland who struggle to eke out a living from the demanding soil while providing top-quality produce to an often-ungrateful and complaining public.
In Seaman's Valley, Linton Clarke puts his life at risk daily as he crosses the Rio Grande to cut bananas and pick coffee from his farm on the opposite bank.
He transports the coffee and bananas on his shoulders, manoeuvring on rocks across the river, sometimes falling into the water.
Once he has safely returned from the farm, his common-law wife, Patricia Hinds, packages the produce for the trip to the market.
"Is a everyday thing this, man. Me have me coffee field over there, banana field over there, and everything have to come over here to go town," Hinds told The Sunday Gleaner.
"It get rough sometimes. Sometimes the river rough and sometimes the load them heavy but food still haffi eat, don't it?" said Hinds as he stomped water from his drenched sneakers and pants legs.
With the produce packed, Hinds joins other small farmers in the area in waiting for the truck which will take them to Kingston twice each week.
Our news team watched as crocus bags of food were stacked so high above the sides of the trucks that they broke the branches of low-hanging trees as the vehicle meandered on the winding road in the Rio Grande Valley, seeming about to fall over the precipices at any time.
Inside the truck, crammed between the dozens of bags, and enduring the noisy engine, the pungent smell of diesel fuel, and the regular sways to avoid the potholes on the canyon-like road surface, sits about one dozen middle-aged women appearing quiet and cautious, unlike the men who started the trip in a noisy fashion.
The truck grows more and more quiet as its occupants fall asleep. With the driver also looking ready to take a nap, there is a one-hour stop.
This rest is welcomed by the driver, and the passengers have no complaints as they all know that his alertness is crucial.
For these Portland farmers and higglers, the memory of the 2008 market-truck crash - which left 14 friends and family members, including a baby, dead - is still fresh in their minds.
With the backbreaking and dangerous work they go through to get the produce into Kingston, it strikes a sensitive nerve in the farmers when they get to Coronation Market and persons complain about the price of the foodstuff.
Ignorance or disregard
According to Kevin Bryan, the unwillingness of persons to pay the prices demanded by farmers and other market vendors highlights either their ignorance or downright disregard for the challenges faced by those who risk life and limb to take produce to the island's markets each week.
"Put it this way; you as the farmer go through 'x' amount of effort in putting the product into the earth and wait sometimes up to six months or a year for the product to come in. And when you reap a banana after waiting so long and after putting so much effort into it, the banana just come to a total of probably $500. How does that drop back something in the bucket?" questioned Bryan.
"Calculate how much it cost for a cart and the truck to bring your items inside the market. And that is just one cost," added Bryan, as he bent over to tie pieces of cord around the mouths of six crocus bags loaded with banana, plantain, dasheen, coffee, cane and pepper for sale.
He argued that at times almost one-third of his crop is lost to the pests.
Bryan's concerns were echoed by Noel Wilson, who does his farming in Bellevue, Portland.
"Right now, when them bawl bout the price me a run them weh," said Wilson, flashing his right hand violently. "I am going to run you away and tell you that you can't tell me how to sell my tings. If yuh nuh want it, yuh just leave it," added Wilson.
He pointed to the high cost of fertiliser, the recent drought which scorched many crops, particularly plantain, on his small farm, and the heavy transportation costs to get to Kingston as the main reasons for the sometimes high prices.
Wilson told The Sunday Gleaner that the dangerous truck ride can cost him about $9,000 a month, with an additional $400 for each passenger.
"Most times you make back your money, sometimes you only make a ting pon yuh money, and sometimes when you come over you still have to go look money to buy load. A lot of the times we mash up more than how we make it," argued Wilson.
Good market days
He admitted that there are few good market days when he is able to make more than enough to cover his expenses and save.
When in downtown, the higglers and farmers will have to pay handcart men up to $1,500 to take the goods to their vending spots. According to Bryan, it will cost the farmers or higglers a further $100 or $200 for these spots.
"And on top of that you still have some unscrupulous people passing by who want something free, whether they are going to beg it or steal it while you are busy. So we have to constantly be vigilant. On top of that, everything might not necessarily reach in safely and securely because we are packing them up on the truck," he said.