Thu | Oct 22, 2020

Growth & Jobs | Drought, COVID-19 pandemic affect farmers

Published:Tuesday | September 15, 2020 | 12:13 AM
St Catherine farmer Randy Finnikin.
St Catherine farmer Randy Finnikin.
From left: Richard Setal, his father Raphael and Kimberly Atkinson, communication and client services manager, JN Small Business Loans. The Setals have been negatively impacted by drought and the COVID-19 pandemic at their St Catherine farm.
From left: Richard Setal, his father Raphael and Kimberly Atkinson, communication and client services manager, JN Small Business Loans. The Setals have been negatively impacted by drought and the COVID-19 pandemic at their St Catherine farm.
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The year 2020 has not been kind to farmer Richard Setal and his father, Raphael. Their property has been ravaged by the drought which has affected the country since last year.

Just when they thought that the situation could not get worse, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown in St Catherine, where the property is located, forced the farmers to find creative practices to save their operations and reduce spoilage.

“It’s as if we jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, as far as 2020 is concerned,” said Setal. “I was forced to dispose of 25,000 lbs of cabbage and 35,000 lbs of sweet potatoes. And, I had to give the sweet potatoes to the pigs I rear. In total, I lost two acres of sweet potatoes as a result of the drought.”

“COVID-19 has a similar effect as the drought, because I used to supply hotels and other businesses, and the virus reduced that segment of my clients. My pigs could not be sold; and I was challenged by the curfew. Police stopped me a few times during the lockdown and I had to show my identification card and inform them that I was going or coming from my farm. I also had to send my workers home early or allow them to come in later, based on the timing of the curfews,” Setal related.

To minimise the effects of the drought, he has been practising crop diversification. He started to plant Scotch bonnet peppers and Irish potatoes; and recently invested in drip irrigation to relieve his water woes.

“I have been planting according to the seasons, to ensure that the drought does not affect me as badly as it used to. I have also invested in drip irrigation equipment; however, what I need is a source to be able to pump a few thousand gallons of water, daily. That would really help to mitigate the effect of the drought,” he added.

HARSH LESSONS

Randy Finnikin, a St Catherine-based farmer, said that although the drought has not affected him, based on the drought mitigation equipment he installed a few years ago, COVID-19 has taught him some harsh lessons.

“The lockdown in St Catherine impacted how early I could reach my farm and also how long I could be there,” he explained. “On a few occasions I was stopped by the police. Fortunately, the president of my co-operative had sought and received clearance for us, as farmers are an essential service, which allows me to tend to my crops.”

Finnikin, who plants onions, hot peppers and pumpkins on his farm, said he has also been hampered by the absence of some employees.

“Getting people is sometimes a challenge because they are afraid to venture out, for fear of the virus. I know many farmers have been challenged in that regard. I have also had challenges with distribution, because some of the locations I supplied closed their doors. As a result, I have had to use social media to get my produce sold,” he explained.

Gillian Hyde, general manager at JN Small Business Loans (JNSBL), said that the loan company understood the challenges which farmers faced; and explained that JNSBL would continue to work with the sector.

“We have been providing support to our farmers in a variety of ways,” she affirmed. “When the pandemic began, we did an assessment and provided solutions for possible needs. As the year progressed, we adjusted in response to the specific need of each farmer through this very challenging period.”

“For those experiencing challenges with drought or below-average rainfall, we have our Climate Smart Loan facility which assists them with equipment for drought mitigation. We are constantly reviewing how we can better assist this sector,” she added.

Although severely impacted by the drought and COVID-19, Setal is optimistic that things will change soon.

“We have already determined that we will need a catchment facility, and equipment to assist us in times of drought,” he explained. “What we are hoping for now is that the pandemic will slow down soon, so we can return to normality and end this difficult spell.”