Mon | May 29, 2017

FIRE! DROUGHT! ...Dry spell bedevils farmers but expect more than average rainfall

Published:Tuesday | May 12, 2015 | 5:00 AMEdmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter
A fire brigade official observes, from the safety of the Mavis Bank main road, the massive fire in Guava Ridge, St Andrew, yesterday.
The wind fans the fire, sending it close to the Mavis Bank main road.
Acres and acres of property in Guava Ridge, St Andrew, being razed by fire yesterday.
Craig Hill is blanketed with smoke from the fire.
A Jamaica Defence Force helicopter transporting water to put out a bush fire in Mavis Bank yesterday.
Water trickles into this National water Commission catchment on Gordon town Road St Andrew.
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THE BREADBASKET Parish of St Elizabeth is currently reeling from the effects of severe drought conditions, with farmers said to be experiencing significant losses as their crops dry up in the field.

"Just from the drought alone, many persons would have been losing their crops because the crops would have received enough sunlight, enough fertiliser, but not enough water to feed the plants through the roots," member of parliament for South West St Elizabeth, Hugh Buchanan told The Gleaner.

The problem has widened beyond the agricultural sector with domestic water supply now being impacted by the dry spell. Buchanan said the entire south coast is now being affected by a severe shortage of water. "I got a call today (yesterday) from Barbary Hall, which has never asked me for water, and there are other areas that usually ask and they are still asking," he said.

"I don't know where to tell you that there is a good water supply right now in my entire constituency," the South West St Elizabeth MP continued.

Flagaman, a farming community known for its efficient production of a range of crops, is facing an uphill task despite efforts at trucking water into the area.

Despite the proximity of two irrigation systems to Flagaman, Buchanan explained that the aquifers had very low capacity, and as such, there was no supply of water to farmers.

The MP said he worked with the farmers to truck water to Flagaman last Monday, but this was inadequate as the demand was overwhelming.

He said Agriculture Minister Derrick Kellier has pledged to provide assistance to farming communities.

The trucking of water to farmers is expected to significantly push up the cost of producing melon and cantaloupe. According to Buchanan, it costs farmers $200,000 to bring a quarter-acre of melon and cantaloupe to maturity. He said drip irrigation would reduce the cost to about $50,000.

And, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), Senator Norman Grant, said although the dry conditions have affected the farming community this year, the impact on the sector last year was devastating.

In 2014, the agricultural sector suffered losses amounting to $1 billion, with about 18,000 farmers affected.

Grant said the drought in 2014 started in April and extended to September. He stressed that it was the worst period of drought that had affected the country in nearly 100 years.

Grant said it was too early to predict whether farmers would suffer the same fate this year.

The JAS president said the expansion of agro parks would ensure that there was more acreage of land with irrigation to fill any gaps that might exist as a result of the impact of drought.

"I would also like to suggest that we streamline things such as rainwater harvesting, the erecting of mini dams, and also how we can create a framework for dry-weather farming."

He said farmers should move away from the slashing and burning method of clearing land that could exacerbate the problem of the dry spell.

The JAS president said that agricultural production for 2015 will either equal or surpass the amounts produced last year.

"If we get some rain in another two weeks or so, the whole picture would change," he added.

"It is a challenging time, but the sector is equal to the task."

Turning his attention to the massive fires that have devastated hundreds of acres of coffee and other crops in the Blue Mountain area of rural St Andrew, Grant said the Ministry of Agriculture was carrying out estimates of the damage.

He said it is estimated that 150,000 boxes, or 1.5 million pounds, of coffee will be produced from the Blue Mountain area this year. He said this represents six per cent lower than the 160,000 boxes produced during the last crop.

Grant said the areas affected by the fire include Mavis Bank, Lime Tree, Tower Hill, Flamstead, Salt Hill and sections of Roberts Field in St Andrew.

He said in Mavis Bank alone, the estimated losses to coffee and other farmers was $120 million.

Grant commended the fire service for carrying out "an excellent job during very adverse conditions".

Meanwhile, in terms of the short- to medium-term weather forecast, the Meteorological Service is forecasting above-normal rainfall for most parishes up to the end of June.

Meteorologist Adrian Shaw told The Gleaner that during February and March, the parishes of Clarendon, Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine and St Thomas were hardest hit by the drought conditions.

Looking ahead, Shaw said Kingston, St James, Clarendon, St Ann, St Catherine, St Elizabeth, St Mary, Portland and Manchester should receive above normal rainfall up to the end of June.

He said normal rainfall is projected for the parishes of Trelawny, Westmoreland, St Thomas and Hanover for the similar period ending June.

"Going forward, we are looking forward to above-normal rainfall for most areas and normal rainfall for other areas," he asserted.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com