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'Herbs cannot feed you' - Farmers sceptical about using their land to plant herbs

Published:Monday | November 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Mildred Crawford
Senator Norman Grant,
Rudolph Brown/Photographer Professor Henry Lowe
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Although the nutraceutical industry is estimated to be valued in excess of US$20 billion, some farmers are cautious about utilising their land for the planting of herbs and medicinal plants until they see more demand for these products locally.

President of the Jamaican Network of Rural Women's Producers (JNRWP), Mildred Crawford, said many have decided to play the wait-and-see game because they have been burnt before.

"Years ago, persons came to Jamaica and said they wanted a lot of herbs from us, and after they bought a certain amount, they just did not come back and people had their places planted up with all these things," she said.

There is also the belief that herbs will not fetch as high a price as cash crops, because they are grown wildly across the island.

"The moringa, the old man beard (ball moss), the guinea hen weed, these are things that in recent times have gained momentum, but they don't cost a lot and they grow widely so people just get up and go to the country and go get them," she said.

"You can't make money off herbs, that cannot feed you," she asserted.

Consultant agronomist with responsibility for protected agriculture at the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, Webster McPherson, feels it is too early to determine how economically viable the industry is for farmers. However, he has no doubt that many would want to venture into this area once they see how it benefits them.

According to McPherson, "This is not a stable crop that you can take to Coronation Market and sell in large volumes. If you grow a lot of these herbs and spices and aromatic plants, you would not be able to sell them if you don't have a formal arrangement with the processor to take the plants when they are ready."

ASSURED MARKET

"If I am a farmer growing these crops, I would want to have an assured market, and a lot of these business people are normally not willing to enter into a formal agreement so that the farmers can actually take the contract to the bank as a business to finance his project and that sort of thing. So the farmer uses his own money and, when the crops are produced, buyers don't want to pay them what was promised or don't want the crops at all," he explained.

President of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, Senator Norman Grant, insists that the industry has a lot of potential and is in fact being given more consideration by farmers.

"It is really, really one of those growth areas that I think the farmers and the agricultural sector and the economy can benefit from significantly, and really, I think it is also a game-changer as well," he said.

"It's a US$20-billion industry that Jamaica and the Caribbean in general have not been tapping into, but it's emerging and we are going to have to consider the teething pains. We are going to have to get new and young farmers who have some amount of enthusiasm to get them involved in it, and what we can do is to marry the growth of this emerging industry with the traditional," the senator noted.

He said farmers who plant herbs will not necessarily have to abandon their traditional cash crops, but instead reserve space for the growing of these plants.

"You are doing that, but some amount of your farming should also include nutraceuticals as we test the market and see how it is embraced," he said.

He pointed out that while Jamaican farmers are producing even more of these herbal plants than they did three years ago, there is still a need to educate farmers about the value in planting herbs and also to impress upon them the global demand for these plants.

teas and supplements

Among those who have managed to successfully utilise Jamaican herbs and medicinal plants to produce nutraceuticals for both the local and the international market is noted scientist Dr Henry Lowe. His company, Bio-Tech R&D Institute, was able to manufacture several teas and supplements with the use of plants such as guinea hen weed, noni, ball moss, cerasee and bissy (kola nut).

"Jamaica has an abundance of medicinal plants," he said.

"As a matter of fact, we have 52 per cent of all the recognised major medicinal plants of the world. We are blessed and a lot of the ones that we have are grown in the wild. The only problem that we face is sustainability, because people go out and wildly cut down and they don't replace. Then we have a problem. What we want to try to do in a lot of cases where we can is that, when we purchase, we encourage those farmers to ensure that they replant," he said.

Dr Lowe said that about 90 per cent of the teas and supplements his company produces are exported to mostly Europe and North America. The demand for these products, he noted, is growing and, based on a recent study commissioned by his organisation, this could accrue to massive wealth for the country.

The study indicated that Jamaica could, over the next three to four years, make $6.5 billion from nutraceuticals, which includes teas and supplements, $4.2 billion from the ganja industry, $5 billion from food and drinks made from herbs, $2.5 billion from spices and $3.5 billion from cosmeceuticals. Cosmeceu-ticals are beauty products made from herbs and medicinal plants.