Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
RIVERSDALE, St Catherine:
COPPING THE inaugural T. Geddes Grant Champion Woman Farmer Trophy at the 2013 Denbigh Agricultural, Industrial and Food Show was special for Maria Azan, even though the family farm in Riversdale, St Catherine, had won the Overall Champion Trophy title three times.
As happens in the corporate world, in farming, women must also carry the additional responsibility of being wives, mothers, and housekeepers, with the burden of their multiple roles largely unrecognised by the society at large, Azan told Rural Xpress. But it is a job for which she is well suited and has performed with distinction over the years.
In 1980, Azan yielded to the urgings of husband Adeeb to venture into agriculture, leaving the stability of operating a supermarket in Linstead, St Catherine, after they bought a 365-acre property in the same parish.
"He was really in the forefront and pioneer of the whole operation - the one with the dream to always be a farmer from I knew him at age 16 - and so we pursued that, and so together we managed this property, but he is retired now," Azan shared recently.
The Azans, who had enjoyed business success up until the time they took the gamble on farming as a means of livelihood, would find themselves severely tested in the early days. The couple realised from the start that making it work would require their full-time hands-on attention, but the physical demands were unlike anything they had anticipated.
"At the time, I had three boys aged 10, 11, 13, and the baby, and we selected a portion of the property and built what would become the family home, and I have lived here every since," Azan shared.
With the house under construction for the next year, they lived under less-than-ideal conditions, with electricity and piped water luxuries they did not enjoy, the entire family was forced to work in order to meet the strenuous demands of farm life. Though long gone, the memories of those early years are indelibly etched on the consciousness of the Azan matriarch.
"The three bigger ones attended St Jago High School and had to get up about 4 o'clock in the morning and get prepared for school. They would take a taxi, go to school at St Jago, come home to do whatever they were instructed to do on the farm - round up the cows, shovel the chicken litter, help plant trees, and whatever else was happening at the time. They were involved and were a part of it," she recalled, while seated on a back patio overlooking the farm.
While that investment in time and money has paid off over the years, it has not been without the hardships, uncertainties, and frustrations of living off the land. Failed crops, combating plant and animal diseases, as well as the devastation of natural disasters are but some what the Azans have endured in more than 30 years of farming.
Today, Azan can look back with a well-earned sense of satisfaction that the last three decades have shaped her life in a fulfilling way.
"Initially, when we just started, I would don the water boots and go down. We used to climb the hillsides looking for slugs. I used to drive out the cows if they went into the orange grove, or goats, and whatever was necessary. My role at the time, and up to very recently, was handling all the books, doing all the accounting procedures, and taking care of the public-relations aspects of the company," she disclosed.
In addition to a dairy, which supplies fresh cows' milk to Nestlé and Jamaica Beverages (formerly Jamaica Citrus Company), they also operate three 30,000-capacity tunnel ventilation broiler poultry houses under contract to Jamaica Broilers. This is in addition to a citrus orchard, which has seen a dramatic fall-off in production in recent years due to the combined devastating impact of the citrus tristeza virus and greening disease. However, it is the poultry operation which has given them the toughest lessons in perseverance.
The veteran farmer explains: "The first time we had 6,000 capacity houses which went down with (Hurricane) Gilbert, and so we built again. We had three 6,000 and a 7,000 and I think another hurricane took those out, and now this is our third time."
Hard as they were, those lessons are now paying off, thankfully, according to Azan.