Tameka Gordon, Business Reporter
Overwhelmed by thieves and diseases, citrus farmers are cutting their losses and abandoning oranges for sugar cane.
Orchards are being squeezed by praedial thieves, as well as the citrus greening disease which has devastated citrus plants nationwide.
With the annual citrus production now averaging two million boxes "and declining", technical director of the Jamaica Citrus Growers' Association, Dr Percy Miller, said the current instability has seen more growers opting to plant sugar cane - a sector which has its own problems but is currently seen as the more lucrative option.
"We are coming from an annual production of 4.5 million boxes in 2001-2002," Miller said, in reference to the economic fallout in the citrus sector.
Citrus production averaged 97,000 tonnes in the 2011-12 crop year, an almost 10 per cent decline from 106,000 tonnes the previous year.
Additionally, in an effort to step up the fight against the dangerous citrus greening disease which has been threatening the near J$4-billion industry, citrus nurseries were ordered closed in 2011 by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Attacking the disease
The government's Citrus Protection Agency (CPA) reports a 50-80 per cent affliction of all plants within each grove.
The agency has joined forces with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and Rural Agricultural Development Authority to attack the disease, and some level of success in curtailing the outbreak has been reported.
But for some farmers in the citrus belt of Clarendon and St Catherine, the rebound is not happening fast enough.
Kenneth Newman of Cambria Farms in Bog Walk, St Catherine, has converted 30 acres of his 400-acre citrus grove into sugar cane with plans to convert another 100 acres by next year.
"We keep assessing the situation and citrus production had just been declining over the years," Newman said of the impact of the citrus greening and tristeza diseases.
"With all the research that has been done locally and overseas, we just don't seem to be getting on top of this thing. The situation is quite worrying as not even young plants are being produced," he said.
Clarendon-based Ervin Clark has converted three of his five-acre citrus field into sugar cane in what he described as a move aimed at diversifying and mitigating against a falling market.
The 52-year-old farmer, who has been in citrus production for some seven years, said his losses due to praedial thieves "and now the disease" has frustrated him into a new line of farming.
More business sense
For him, 300 boxes of citrus at J$250 per box, typically earns J$50,000 after the deduction of his expenses. Clark reasoned that his expected haul of J$80,000 per acre of sugar cane "makes more business sense" since by his reckoning, "there is nothing going on for citrus".
He further complained of losing half his citrus yield to thieves in every crop. "If I go there (the farm) on Monday and I can get 60 boxes, you bet by Wednesday, they take at least 30 boxes."
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Donovan Stanbury, said the move into sugar cane production "is not surprising as the price for sugar is at the highest it has ever been."
The current projection of J$80,000 per tonne, with an added payment of J$14,000 per tonne for molasses, does present a sweet allure for farmers, adds Allan Rickards, chairman of the All Island Jamaica Cane Farmers Association.
Programme manager at the CPA, Alfred Barrett, says the frustration of farmers is understandable.
Drought conditions which prevailed in the previous crop year, coupled with the cost of the enhanced folio nutrition, which forms a part of the Government's response to citrus greening, he said, may leave farmers feeling bewildered.
"The treatment has seen some success as many farmers have reported increased production," Barrett told the Financial Gleaner.
Veteran Clarendon farmer Karl Leiba says he was "not writing off citrus" but, in the meantime, half of his 10-acre property has been converted to sugar cane production.
Farmers can always return to planting citrus, he said, but contends that for now, sugar offers sweeter returns.