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Grape production goes commercial

Farm employee Teddy Morgan removes spoiled grapes from a bunch as he tends to the vineyard at Country Walk Farms in St. Thomas.

VINICULTURE IS largely unpo-pular in Jamaica. It was long thought that the grapes could not have been cultivated on a commercial basis in Jamaica. The constants required for grape production are determined by the weather and in Jamaica, weather is sometimes unpredictable.

Basically, grape requires dry conditions all the time, as water quickly spoils the fruits. One place where conditions have been proven perfect for grape cultivation is Yallahs in St. Thomas.

From the main road, Country Walk Farms looks like a luxuriant nestling place. The large white farm house might suggest that lifestyle of barons is lived behind the perimeter fencing. However, a lot more takes place on the 45-acre property, than what meets the eye.

Twenty-four acres of the land is utilised for grape production. Lovers of the luxury would find themselves in paradise, if they were to walk between the trellises on which miles of grape vine runs.

The farm is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Aston Tai and is managed by 27 year-old Roberta Crosby, a graduate of Elim Agricultural School. In addition to grapes, they grow just about every other fruit known in Jamaica, as well as the exotic American delight, cantaloupe. They have been experimenting in the area of cantaloupes, trying to find the best variety suited for Jamaica. They have had assistance from the Bodles Research Station in this regard.

"We have tried the sugar bowl and honey dew varieties but they didn't do well, as they weren't resistant to the downing mildew disease. We have tried our own experiments and what we have in cultivation now is the hymark variety as it has been doing very well," said Ms. Crosby. Cantaloupe is a large fruit resembling the watermelon. It is either orange or green on the inside, depending on the variety.

But the sweetest topic at Country Walk is grapes. The farm is finding it difficult to fill local demand. "We can never have enough to sell despite the quantity we produce. Higglers are constantly lining up for the product," said Mr. Crosby.

A pound of grape at Country Walk Farms sells for $80 (less than 10 lbs) and $60 (over 10 lbs).

They grow three varieties; the venus (seedless), blackburch and cardinal. These are all purple grapes. Ms. Crosby said they are trying to get the white (green) variety to put into several acres as well.

Growing grapes takes a fair amount of work. Seedling are planted eight feet apart and a lot of pruning has to be done to the vines, as well as spraying to protect the growing fruits from the powdery mildew disease. Water and grapes are not the best of friends, and some amount of production is lost when it rains. The grapes rot easily.

Normally, it takes three months between blossoming and maturity and this year, the crop was introduced earlier to avoid the rainy season. It is expected that by July, the present crop will be fully matured. Ms Crosby said she expects a big crop this year, with each bunch bringing in at last 3 lbs. of grapes.

Ms. Crosby said that interest in grape cultivation has increased in Jamaica, as scores of people have been flocking to Country Walk to purchase seedlings, which are sold at $100 each.

The Ministry of Agriculture through the RADA parish office will be helping in the expansion of grape production in St. Thomas, through the Eastern Jamaica Agricultural Support Programme (EJASP), launched last week.

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