Grabbing them green
Each year, Jamaica imports some 9,000 tonnes of onion with an estimated value of US$3.6 million. Now, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is looking to cut the import bill by half over the next two years.
Integral to achieving this objective is the increase in the production of onions locally, and the Yallahs Agro-Park has been earmarked as the vehicle to achieve this.
However, with the cost of production running anywhere between $650,000 and $750,000 for land preparation, labour and inputs such as seeds, fertiliser, water and chemicals, added to the between $150,000 and $250,000 needed to install an irrigation system, getting started in onion farming is a daunting prospect for small farmers.
And even after identifying and accessing the money, small farmers still have a lot of work to do in finding a market and protecting the crop from thieves. It is these two areas that Spanish Grain Store, the country's largest importer and distributor of onions, is partnering with the farmers and the agriculture ministry to boost production of the crop.
Spanish Grain has committed to buying most of the onion produced in the Yahalls Agro-Park, with another private sector company on track to buy the rest. In addition to guaranteeing the farmers a minimum price at which they can make profit, Spanish Grain is going further by buying the onions green.
Onion is usually sold at the dry weight after the bulbs have matured, and which is indicated when the tissue in the onion neck (part above ground) breaks down causing it to fall, hence the term 'break the neck'. Usually, the crop is allowed to stay in the field for a week or more to facilitate drying, but this is the time when farmers need to be most vigilant since thieves have stolen entire onion crops overnight.
So with Spanish Grain buying the onions green, farmers get a much higher price and praedial larceny becomes a non-issue, a big relief for farmers like Gary McLean.
"This is a big thing for us because a years we farmers try to get a thing like this where you have the produce and the contractor just come and have them taken up and me couldn't get it before, but we have it now. So we have fi a hold it inna the highest esteem that it nuh slip away and we need fi do the right thing and keep the contract alive," said McLean.
"So when the onion them break the neck, we get them draw out and cut and Spanish Grain send come and have them picked up because the company has a dryer. So the green onion save us a lot, not having to watching the field because thief naw go thief the green onion. So we nuh have none of that problem between storage, security and so."
Bryan Wong, managing director of Spanish Grain Store, told The Sunday Gleaner he is in for the long haul, having invested significantly in onion dryers.
"It's about a 10-15 per cent loss but the idea is to relieve the pressure from the farmers. The praedial larceny, it's very risky because of the process of drying it for them. I've been involved in the onion production more than five years now and I've had experience with farmers where the onions were in the field ready, couple more weeks to be harvested and thieves come in on them."
After researching the drying of onions, Wong, who has been long involved in the lucrative business of importation and distribution, says he went on to invest significantly in drying machines, in order to get an edge over competitors.
"The people who want to buy from the farmers dry, they also have done their research too, but now I have the facility to handle the onions. Those other people involved are just importers - they open the back of container and distribute. I am lining myself up to be an integral part of the process of growing and distributing.
"So my idea is to facilitate the farmers as the crop is ready to take off because the process of drying is usually done in the field for one/two weeks. So you can imagine they have those onions in the field for one, two weeks, anybody can just walk in, drive a truck up and just take it up. So I am trying to get the crop up right out of the field and I facilitate the drying."
No matter how much onion is produced in the Yallahs Agro-Park this year, it will be nowhere near adequate to meet the needs of Jamaicans, with seasonal peaks such as what happens at Easter when escoveitch fish is a staple in most Jamaican homes.
Wong is well aware of the potential and so is looking to further collaborate with the farmers in order to meet the demand.