Fri | Apr 28, 2017

Agro-park high-technology in St Thomas ... Oh Yea?

Published:Friday | June 5, 2015 | 6:00 AM
Soil-health advocate Mark Brooks and soil-health specialist, Dr Danielle Treadwell, measuring the width of crop rows at the Plantain Garden River Agro Park in St Thomas.
Plantain Garden River Agro Park farmer Keith Thomas said he is still reeling from a failed onion crop that happened about two years ago.
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In a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum on climate change, Donovan Stanberry, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, spoke about some of the climate change-mitigation efforts in agriculture. He declared that there was a "climate-smart approach to agriculture", saying, "We have introduced ordinary folks to high-technology agriculture through intervention, such as drip irrigation."

Some 2,000 farmers, he said, were impacted at a cost of more than $700 million. They have had monetary and other benefits, including greater yields, especially with potatoes. When pressed as to where some of these farmers were, Stanberry urged The Gleaner to go see what's happening at the Plantain Garden River Agro Park in St Thomas. "A total and complete transformation," he said the agro park was going through as a result of climate-change mitigation efforts.

On Tuesday, The Gleaner, in the company of longtime soil-health advocate Mark Brooks, and soil-health specialist Dr Danielle Treadwell, associate professor at the University of Florida, visited the agro park. A drip-irrigation system, funded by Jamaica Social Investment Fund, was being put in place, yes, but there was no other visible 'high technology'.

two thumbs down

The place is very dry and dusty, and most of the lots were bare, or being ploughed. There was no bumper crop, nothing to show that agriculture was booming in the park. Absolutely nothing to show that effective climate change-mitigation efforts were in place. And both Brooks and Treadwell gave the thumbs down to the soil health. It is not good, Treadwell said, but there was room for improvement.

Brooks ripped through the newly laid irrigation system, saying it is a total disaster, and called for the heads of the people who laid it out.

"Whoever designed this agro-park layout must be fired! ... From what I see, there is a whole heap to be desired ... . What I can see is like how not to do it," he said incredulously.

Treadwell also weighed in on the system, saying some of the drips were on top of the pipes instead of at the bottom. She said it would be more preferrable to have the pipes embedded instead of being on top of the soil. In essence, the strong wind would help to evaporate the water dripping on top of the soil.

In addition to the poor soil health and the layout of the drip-irrigation system, some of their other concerns are the planting of crops in the direction of the prevailing wind, too much space between the rows of crops, and the height of the rows. Importantly, some of the crops, such as onions, are not suitable for the clay soil.

Some of the farmers who were present when the discussions were going on could only look on in silence, perhaps wondering whether another 'disaster' was dripping their way. This is the same agro park in which farmers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a few years ago. And they are still paying back loans, according to Keith Thomas, one of the farmers who lost money due to the failure of an onion crop.

Thomas said he believes farmers were not adequately advised and guided when they were encouraged to participate in the agro-park ventures. Yet, earlier this year, he said, some farmers actually made some money from a crop of onion. But as it stands, things are looking quite dry and dusty for some farmers at the Plantation Garden River Agro Park.

- P.H.W.