Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
For years, despite their best efforts, Jamaican farmers have been unable to access the lucrative French fries market as international fast-food franchises, especially, have convinced successive administrations to grant them import licences for the frozen product on the grounds that local farmers were unable to cultivate the right type of tuber.
Now AgroGrace, a division of Hardware and Lumber Limited, is investing in a pilot project to identify and bring to the market varieties of Irish potatoes that will meet the exacting standards that have for so long eluded local farmers.
General Manager Olive Downer-Walsh told Wednesday's launch of the agriculture ministry's Irish potato production project about the company's plans to revisit a venture it had long abandoned, given that its seed suppliers were now aware of the right varieties. But she added that there is still a lot of work to be done. To this end, it will work with the Scientific Research Council and the Rural Agricultural Development Authority.
Afterwards, she told Rural Express: "We are working on evaluating some varieties, and we are going to have these potatoes harvested, prepared, tested, as to whether they will meet the standards required for the fast-food chains, and the fast-food people will be a part of it.
"The person who will sell the fries, the people who will prepare it, and the fast-food chains are integral because unless they buy into this local project, it's not going to go anywhere, but we can't just sit back and hope it happens. We are taking the initiative to look at it again and get all the stakeholders on board, and see where we go with it," she disclosed.
The company has committed to extensive testing of the product from the time of cultivation right through every phase of the value chain, retesting if necessary, in order to ensure that it gets things right. In fact, it will invest in planting for the 2013-14 crop year which starts in November at sites in Guys Hill, St Mary, and Christiana, Manchester.
AgroGrace is encouraged by the results of trials it conducted last year with some 15 farmers in the St Andrew hills, Westmoreland, and other non-traditional Irish potato growing areas. By providing seeds, chemicals and other inputs, working in collaboration with Newport Fersan which provided fertiliser, they were able to lift production to a ratio of 20 bags of table potatoes for every bag planted, three times the six-to-one ratio the farmers had achieved on their own.
In fact, Downer-Walsh explained that while it was a general perception that Irish potatoes did well only in traditional areas such as Guys Hill and Christiana, ongoing research conducted by AgroGrace had disproved this notion. She cited the case of Irish potato planted at Bernard Lodge which had yielded a ratio of 15 to 1.
Now in response to the Government's appeal for private sector/public-sector collaboration to help the country achieve self-sufficiency in Irish potato production, AgroGrace has committed to supporting, in particular, the component of the programme which targets women and youth.