Pimento production on the decline out west
Except for the parish of Hanover, pimento farmers in western Jamaica are steadily drifting away from the cultivation of the crop as its commercial appeal has been relegated to the sale of leaves to the essential oil industry, resulting in pimento berries becoming scarce.
In a recent letter to The Gleaner, Andrew Gray, a Westmoreland-based spice producer, attributed the decline in pimento berries to the butchering of the trees for their leaves. He also noted that farmers are reluctant to cultivate pimento because it takes all of five years for a tree to mature.
Cleveland Wright, the president of the Hanover Parish Development Committee, told The Gleaner that the bid by the essential oil industry to secure the leaves of pimento trees was taking a heavy toll in Hopewell and surrounding communities, where pimento trees are being stripped of their leaves on pimento estates in places like Bamboo and Round Hill.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, community people have been stripping these trees and selling the leaves. The berry production has decreased significantly and the trees are not being allowed to grow," said Wright. "Everyone, who has land with pimento trees is doing the same thing."
However, unlike Wright, retired agronomist John Gayle has a different explanation for the farmers' reluctance to plant pimento trees. In his 2013 book, Pimento: The Jamaican Allspice Story, Gayle attributed the disinterest of farmers to competition from South American countries, which are producing and selling substandard pimento on the world market at a far cheaper price.
"Export of pimento is experiencing a decline, perhaps because of the price of our product. Produce from Mexico, our main competitor, is being sold on the world market at a much lower price than the Jamaican pimento, which makes it more attractive to importers, despite its inferiority in quality," stated Gayle. "It therefore seems as if price, and not quality, is now a more significant factor as far as the trade is concerned, resulting in a reduction in the farm-gate price paid to farmers since 2005."
"This will surely be a disincentive to them (farmers), inducing a disinclination to reap the crop, especially in the event of a poor harvest. This will diminish the interest that was developing in the growing of pimento when the farm-gate price increased to J$110 per pound in 2005," added Gayle.
Unlike in eastern Hanover, the farmers in western Hanover say their situation is quite different. They are saying that, unlike in the past, when mainly local persons were buying pimento berries, today, the people involved in the trade are mainly outsiders from St Elizabeth and Westmoreland.
"It is very competitive because in one day all three buyers will come. A truck from Westmoreland used to come to buy the leaves. I do see where people break off too much of the limbs, but we still have our trees, " said Ray Kerr, the vice-president of the Clifton/Mt Peace Farmers group. "There are not less trees, but the trees are not being cared for like in the past."
According to Kerr, poor maintenance, which has resulted in parasitic vines stifling pimento trees, and unproductive trees blocking sunlight and air from the productive ones, was also an area of concern.
"Most of the trees are not productive like one time. Most of the farmers have gotten old, and the younger generation do not see it as being viable," stated Kerr.
In 1943, pimento production was alive and vibrant in western Jamaica, with all the parishes holding their own. The number of pimento trees and pimento farmers were as follow:
n Trelawny - 308,230 trees and 740 farmers.
n Westmoreland - 167,230 trees and 2151 farmers.
n Hanover - 66,440 trees and 964 farmers.
n St James - 39,930 trees and 864 farmers.
By the 1996 census, there was a significant decline in the pimento sector, with much fewer trees and farmers. In fact, with significantly decreased figures, Hanover had moved up from third to become the region's top producer. The figures were as follows:
n Hanover - 908 farmers and 1,071.3 acres under cultivation.
n Westmoreland - 1698 farmers with only 608.8 acres under cultivation.
n Trelawny - 153 farmers and only 555.7 acres under cultivation.
n St James - 346 farmers and 103.9 acres under production.
Since 1996, the west has not had much to celebrate in pimento production, except for the fact that Hanover is now the nation's fourth-highest producer.