Innovative agriculture embracing technology
I had the recent pleasure of addressing a group of 4-H clubbites in St Thomas on the occasion of the club's seventieth anniversary, and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to reminisce on the value of this organisation to the development of agriculture and young people in Jamaica.
The 4-H Club movement is one of those bedrock organisations which have been going about their development work in a very quiet way.
We should never allow the country to forget their pioneering efforts which have contributed so much to the country's agricultural sector.
Here in Jamaica, 4-H took root 70 years ago because there was a clear need for the nation to produce a more scientifically inclined group of farmers, who would observe better agricultural practices and develop good marketing know-how for their produce.
Today, the need for Jamaica to interest young people in farming for domestic consumption becomes even more pressing, as we are being urged to eat what we grow, and grow what we eat. It would interest you to note that, up to three years ago, Jamaica's food import bill was in the region of US$800 million.
That, by anybody's reckoning, is a lot of money.
Largely because of an aggressive drive to encourage Jamaicans to eat what we grow, that food bill has been cut significantly, resulting in our spending just over US$661 million last year.
But we must cut that bill even more drastically. Our minister of agriculture is of the view that we can replace 45 per cent of imported food with local produce, and I am inclined to support him. But we cannot get to that goal by wishful thinking. It's going to take fixity of purpose, strategic planning and judicious management of the sector.
More than anything else, though, it will need dedicated and forward-thinking young farmers who understand how to exploit modern farming methods. It will require young persons to embrace technology.
As Jamaica looks to ways to improve our agricultural output, it is important for us to reflect on the fact that the application of information technology to the field of agriculture has advanced leaps and bounds, giving persons in the sector the opportunity to really move forward with extensive management of readily available data, which one can get from RADA.
I was very interested to learn that, recently, the Mona School of Business at the University of the West Indies has been collaborating with RADA to make available and accessible data related to agricultural output, for the benefit of farmers, service providers and the people who will make available financing to farmers - that is, banks and credit unions.
A competition piloted by the Mona School of Business, in collaboration with a group of young software enthusiasts, produced software which could bring enormous benefits to farmers.
A total of 13 teams competed over a 24-hour period to determine which could develop the most innovative value-added application of technology to agriculture.
The teams were provided with access to agricultural production and pricing data through RADA and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Teams represented the University of Technology, the University of the West Indies' Mona and St Augustine campuses, Northern Caribbean University, and a team of graduates of the Excelsior Community College.
The winning team, working under the name YamZilla, produced an application aimed at connecting markets with farmers.
It is mainly intended for supermarkets or mass-market customers who are looking for providers of agricultural produce. They would, for example, visit the team's website and search for carrots and the application would find, rank and display the most suitable farmers to provide carrots, based on location, price and supply status for products in the farmer's region.
A team from UWI, St Augustine, produced software to help farmers seeking financial assistance such as microfinance loans.
Another team from the University of Technology came up with software that could help loan providers in making decisions on the amount that a farmer qualifies for, based on the crops that he intends to plant; the location and size of his farm; the term over which he will plant them, and the historical performance of such crops in similar locations over a similar period.
A team from UWI, Mona, saw the importance of hooking young people into agriculture from a very early age, as they developed a game for primary-school children aged seven to 12 that provides a fun and exciting environment for teaching young students about agriculture in Jamaica.
Northern Caribbean University's team developed an application using a mobile phone through which farmers can see the trends of crops. The trend utilises past data of quantity, prices and location to give a predicted outcome. Farmers can also select a specific crop to view the feasibility of planting it.
The agricultural issue, of course, is not only an economic one. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a need to understand and work with our environment in a better way than we have done.
A more balanced approach to nature and our interaction with it is a must in the near future. This, also, is an area in which science, technology and the innovation they promise can be a huge asset to development.
This is all very exciting stuff, and it is very clear to me that technology is very much at home with agriculture.
It is left to our young farmers to embrace it.
Disclosure: GraceKennedy supported the Mona School of Business competition.
Don Wehby is group chief operating officer of GraceKennedy Limited.