Rural Express:North Carolina farmer volunteers in St Thomas
Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
JOHN'S TOWN, St Thomas:THE FLORIDA Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas' (FAVACA) mission "is to improve social and economic conditions in the Caribbean and the Americas through volunteer service".
The volunteers that FAVACA uses are "top experts in their fields and are thus able to impart invaluable knowledge and information to their international counterparts", and Jamaican farmers are set to benefit from the expertise of these volunteers.
In October, FAVACA launched a three-and-a-half-year programme called the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise to guide farmers in St Thomas in "the development of market-driven organic agricultural production".
The programme is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Programme and administered by Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA).
Over the period, through the Farmer-to-Farmer Programme, "FAVACA will place 70 professionals to train an estimated 2,800 individuals on various facets including irrigation and management, distribution, and organic food systems". Technical personnel are also among the volunteers.
The first of such volunteers, and the first farmer to arrive in Jamaica is Alex Hitt of North Carolina. He was in St Thomas for two weeks and returned to the United States last week. When Rural Xpress caught up with him, he was preparing to depart, but he took time out to talk about his experience.
Hitt went straight from college, where he studied soils, to work on a farm. Now, after more than three decades, he's still farming, with organic tomatoes being his principal crop, cultivated on four acres of land. The essence of his visit, he said, was "to really help small farmers ... to make more money".
The idea is that farmers will move their ventures to high level of commercialism. "Once the farmers' group is up and running, they will be making money, particularly through the marketing of crops," Hitt said.
To help achieve this goal, he has given on-the-ground technical assistance to farmers, business planning and marketing advice. He has also visited eight farms, some more than once, interviewing and advising farmers, and doing research to find solutions to their problems. One of the things he did was to help them to create a crop plan to meet their needs.
When Hitt chose to participate in the programme, he said he had expected that the farmers would be having certain challenges, "not much assets", but who are probably good farmers. Upon arrival, he found some who have more capital than expected, but need some guidance in the area of marketing.
One of the challenges, Hitt said, that farmers are facing is that they are being "taken advantage of" by higglers and exporters. This means that they have to find alternative ways to market their produce. Other challenges the farmers are facing are drought ("the greatest challenge"), worm infestation, and limited access to seeds.
In summing up his sojourn, Hitt said it was "fast" and "eye-opening". "I have learnt a lot about tropical crops ... and farming, and I see this as a big project ... I think it will work," he told Rural Xpress. He said the initiative has an 80 per cent chance of succeeding. There is a ready supply of labour, the soil is good, and farmers are interested in the thrust.
To the volunteers who are coming after him, Hill said they should "get a feel for the situation, but not be put off by what they see at first".