Gary Spaulding and Nagra Plunkett, Gleaner Writers
WESTERN BUREAU:In some circles tobacco is described as the fastest-growing cash crop in Jamaica.
A yet to be officially released survey by the Rural Agriculture Development Authority (RADA) found just under 600 farmers in the trade in 2010; up from an estimated 30 less than a decade ago.
A total of 573 farmers were reportedly interviewed during the RADA survey with the highest concentration found in St Elizabeth and St Ann.
It is hard work for the farmers and the quality of the local produce makes it not acceptable to international producers of cigarettes and cigars.
But the money to be earned from tobacco farming continues to make it attractive for farmers in the communities within the Burnt Savannah to Mountainside belt in St Elizabeth where it is an ingrained element of the culture.
Forty-seven-year-old Windel 'Archie' Allen has been involved in the planting and reaping of the cash crop since he was a child working on his father's farm in Burnt Savannah.
"Planting tobacco is a normal way of life for us. If it wasn't for it, many of us wouldn't (be) able to take care of our responsibilities," Allen told The Sunday Gleaner.
"I grow up come see my old man growing tobacco and so naturally I come do it."
Allen explained that tobacco farming in the area is carried out on a subsistence basis - just enough to sell to higglers, most of whom ply their trade at the Charles Gordon market in St James and the Coronation market in downtown Kingston.
He said the drought experienced across the island from January to early June left several parched fields of the crop, which fetches $600-$1,000 per pound.
"The water beating us. There is no irrigation system in these parts so we have to use our own pipes and the pesticides and chemicals are expensive too," added 55-year-old Eulis Foster who has been a tobacco farmer for the past 11 years.
"It is really easy to get into tobacco farming because all you need to do is to get some seeds from somebody who already doing it and you on your way," added Foster.
fearful of shutdown
But another tobacco farmer, Carmen Stewart, is fearful that there could be a shutdown of the sector if certain stakeholders have their way.
"My livelihood could be threatened because I hear on the news where they want to put in some strict rules on the tobacco industry," she explained.
"It is not just about the big companies but there are farmers, like myself, who make a living from tobacco."
Stewart and her husband, Hopeton, decided to farm the crop following the passage of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 after trying their hands with melons and cantaloupes.
"We have to contend with worms and thieves. Because people will watch your plants until them mature, cut them and carry them away to sell them," said Stewart
In the nearby community of Knoxwood, The Sunday Gleaner team found Claudius Clarke on his plot of land that he had dedicated to tobacco farming since November 2011.
He decided to turn to the crop after 17 stints as a farm worker in the overseas employment programme.
"The person who I used to work with in Canada died so I never bother to look about the programme again," the 47-year-old man stated. "The tobacco farming not bad. I am able to get out what I put in."
For Clarke, tobacco farming is used to care for his common-law-wife, his 16-year-old son and three grown stepchildren.
"The only problem is the chemical or the tobacco spray and fertiliser to use on it."
The boom in the number of tobacco farmers has attracted the attention of local cigarette giants Carreras and its managing director Richard Pandohie recently told The Sunday Gleaner that the company has taken steps to enter into a partnership of sorts with the tobacco farmers across the island.
He said while his company sources its tobacco from overseas, it is willing to work with local farmers to improve their product so that it can enter the international Carreras global chain.
"We are working closely to find a way to work with the farmers to bring their product up to a certain standard which we can then put back into the global supply chain," said Pandohie.
carreras wants to help
Accordingly, Pandohie says Carreras is actively exploring how it can help the farmers to bring the quality of their tobacco up to an acceptable standard and then take it off their hand and put it in the global chain.
"It (locally grown tobacco) is the best cash crop in Jamaica now. The quality is poor but the demand is such that the guys make no effort to improve the quality," argued Pandohie.
"We have actually brought in experts to look at the industry and we are confident as growing tobacco is not an expensive proposition to get up to the right quality," he said.
Pandohie said his team had already started work with RADA and will be approaching the Ministry of Finance to fashion a workable plan.
"A team is already on the ground … whatever we supply in Jamaica is a drop in the global chain. As long as the standard is good enough we don't see that as a problem," he stressed.
"We are not there to compete with the farmers but to see how we can help the farmers to get to be part of the production line."
But it will be difficult for tobacco farmer to get any help from RADA or the Government.
Under international agreements which the Jamaican Government has signed, including the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, no State support can be provided for farmers of the crop.
That may be why tobacco farmers have never approached the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) for support.
President of the JAS Glendon Harris said there is no loan facility dedicated to tobacco farmer and he has no knowledge of them approaching the organisation for help.