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Jamaica: Not giving up on tobacco

Published:Sunday | October 2, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Patrick Simms from Burnt Savannah in St Elizabeth was seen in Mandeville, Manchester selling tobacco recently. Simms told The Gleaner that he has been selling the product from his field for the past five years. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

TOBACCO FARMERS are raking in millions of dollars due to a spike in demand for the product on the market over the last two years, a Rural Agriculture Development Authority (RADA) survey has found.

This is not good news for the Jamaican government, which has turned a blind eye to an industry that it should be phasing out in conformity with an international treaty.

At a time when the Government should be providing alternative sources of employment for tobacco farmers been under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the farmers, lured by big bucks, are shooting up just about everywhere.

After declining to near extinction in the 1990s, the 2011 survey found that tobacco cultivation has, over the last two years, begun to blossom in rapid proportions. Investigators from RADA have identified and interviewed a number of tobacco farmers in Jamaica using GPS mapping and data analysis and cross-referencing in carrying out their task.

operating unscientifically

They found that just under 600 tobacco farmers are operating unscientifically and largely without the benefit of technology in several reputable rural farming areas across the island.

Tobacco appears to be a lucrative and highly profitable crop.

The executive summary of the report states that the tobacco farmers have been motivated by the strong demand in a mainly informal market, for locally grown tobacco and to a lesser extent, the demand for tobacco for a small cigar making subsector.

Almost all farmers expressed a preference for growing tobacco over other crops because of the ease of growing it and the high level of profitability accorded by a sustained year-round market offering good prices.

That the crop once reaped and dried can be easily stored for sustained periods, is also a plus for the farmers.

Tobacco prices at the farm gate, reportedly ranged between $100/lb to as high as $8,000/lb with a modal price of $800/lb for dried bundled leaves.

At this modal price, the estimated value of the Industry at farmgate is $397 million.

This calculates to gross earnings per acre at the farmgate of $1.28 million.

The approximate mean annual gross earning per farmer is just under $693,000.

The report divulged that the increase in cultivation was evident by the number of new tobacco farmers identified by the survey.

It notes that more than half of the number of farmers indicated that they have been growing tobacco for less than two years.

A total of 573 farmers were interviewed with the highest concentration located in St Elizabeth and St Ann.

With an assumption of a single crop per year, and using a national average yield of 1600 lb/ac, it is estimated that approximately 496,800 lbs of tobacco are produced on an annual basis.

Tobacco is most commonly marketed in the form of bundled leaves and sold to higglers and middlemen who then sell to end users.

Some farmers have ventured into some amount of value-added, selling 'jack ass rope' and to a lesser extent in the form of homemade cigarettes and ground tobacco.

Most farmers expressed plans to expand their tobacco production, with the intention of doing this expansion during this year. Among the reasons given for this intention to expand were the good prices and demand for the crop.