Small Bizz: Living on ackee
Marcia Williams of Clarendon has been farming ackee since 2004, on family land, picking fruit from her own trees and buying from other farmers, as well as selling to local processors.
For Williams, the crop, which brought processors $1.2 billion in income in 2009, is just one source of income. She also farms pepper and cassava.
But, for Anne Williams, 40, in the same parish, ackee is all she knows as a trader of the crop.
Anne and her husband visit the 14 parishes all year long to buy ackee, which they then sell to a local factory at $60 per dozen. The fruit is in season all year long, but ripens at different times because of climatic differences.
In Clarendon, where ackee is currently relatively scarce, it is now being sold for as much as $1,000 per box, with each box holding 40 dozen pods.
"Ackee is a seasonal thing," Marcia Williams said.
"Here in Clarendon the best time is June to October/November."
The $1,000 price per box is out of Anne's reach, so she goes farther afield for cheaper prices, or just waits for the fruit to come back in abundance.
"At our factory, price buy for $60 a dozen, but others will pay up to $80, so these persons can afford higher prices."
The Williamses have been buying and selling ackee for several years, earning enough income to cover their simple lifestyle.
"I do not rent, and we grow our own food."
But, Anne admits that dabbling has become something bigger.
"Now, we are going out with the ackee. In the beginning, I had less knowledge, but then got training; and the market is there," she said.
The Clarendon Association of Ackee Suppliers, of which both Anne and Marcia are members, has received training from the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) in crop management.
The group has also received commitments for purchase from the Jamaica Agro Processors Association (JAPA), which includes nine local exporters of the fruit to ethnic markets in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada.
"The training is ongoing. We are taught how to pick ackee so as to make the crop last longer, how to store, how to keep depots - sterile and up to standard. We are taught when the fruits are ready to be reaped, " said Anne.
JAS coordinator Jannett Pullen, who has been responsible for farmer training in the parish, says small farmers, buyers and pickers dominate the market, despite efforts by the Ministry of Agriculture over the last few years to establish a number of orchards through the Tree Crop Project.
"Most ackee is from small holdings of one to 10 trees and also from trees propagated by birds in the wild. These are not cultivated," said Pullen
Last year, when there was a noticeable increase in production, Pullen said it was the direct result of no hurricanes and more knowledge and care of trees.
"Pickers are indeed the most valuable link in this chain. Their operation will determine longevity of the crop. We are now developing training packages to improve pickers' efficiency in this area."
The Clarendon Association of Ackee Suppliers has a membership of over 70 persons.
Challenges to farmers who have aligned themselves with the JAS and associations that look out for small and medium enterprises include operating as a business with proper record keeping, sanitation and access to funding.
The JAS, in collaboration with the MSME Alliance and others, has crafted training programmes to address issues such as tax registration, basic business management, simple accounting procedures, food handlers' permits, good agricultural practices, pruning and fertilisation, and fruit identification and hypoglycin, a toxin which is high in fruits which are picked too early.
Anne Williams says, for her, funding remains a primary problem.
"A loan would be great. Each time the crop starts you have to have money to go out and make purchases, and without sufficient funds you are limited," she said.
"The factory pays every day so the money is sure. My factory never refuses supplies."