Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
In the last three years, Vivienne Ebanks has immersed herself in farming, establishing an impressive track record in the greenhouse aspect of protected agriculture.
She and husband Winston operate a five and a half-acre farm in Flagaman, St Elizabeth. They hire one other person on a full-time basis and Ebanks is always busy doing something in the greenhouse or tunnel house. When she is not involved in cultivation, the self-confessed lover of the soil is carrying out some kind of research to improve productivity and production.
"At this time we do bell peppers - red and yellow, the farm also carries some Romaine lettuce, and we do a bit of cantaloupe and melon," she explained.
They are cultivated in the 12,000-square-foot tunnel house, with the bell peppers and other vegetables grown in the 3,000-square-foot green house.
"The tunnel house has no netting around it, just the plastic over the top. The greenhouse is totally enclosed - both forms of protected agriculture," she explained.
The bell (sweet) peppers and Romaine lettuce are cultivated under contract to supply the GraceKennedy processing facility in Hounslow, some 15 minutes drive away.
While she did not have a farming background as a youngster, when the opportunity for training in protected agriculture presented itself, Ebanks fully immersed herself in the courses offered by the International Institute for Co-operation in Agriculture, Rural Agricultural Development Authority and other agencies.
"We were taught all the angles of greenhouse farming," she disclosed.
"First, you have to have a proper fertigation system. We have tanks, we have made a 100,000-gallon pond. The water that I am storing in the pond comes from the greenhouse roof run-off, as well as the tunnel house. We harness it through gutters," she pointed out.
Apart from that, they have in place a 25,000-gallon tank underground, and while this might seem like an abundance of the precious fluid, it really isn't. In an area where rainfall is at a premium, greenhouse farmers must have at least a six-week supply of water, using as the Ebanks do, 1,000 gallons every four days.
"If we run dry, we'll have to buy," she said.
Running dry, however, is not an option, especially since the fertigation method, which allows for the dissemination of the liquid fertiliser via drip irrigation, is controlled by a timer.
Ebanks then continued her lessons in greenhouse farming, explaining: "Depending on your area - whether it is cool or hot, we go through temperature, PH, testing. We test our water, we test our soil to make sure the menu we feed the plants will be right for them, and this can differ from crop to crop."
The Ebanks have now moved away from buying commercial fertiliser, opting to buy the ingredients such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and mixing them with the necessary micronutrients. In addition to being cheaper, it is just as effective as the commercial blends.
It is here that the issue of observing phytosanity measures every step of the chain comes up and, for these St Elizabeth farmers, there is no room for compromise, and listening to Vivienne Ebanks, it sounds like an addiction to good agricultural practices.
"When we mix our fertiliser, we make sure that the place is clean. Clean of any weeds or any pathogens or any insects - any thing like that, we make sure. We have to constantly make sure our area is clean. The greenhouse, before you go into it you step on a mat which is in a footbath, and in that we put, like, bleach, or insecticide, or anything that will ensure that you don't take any insects or germs inside.
She continued: "Your hands must be washed and you don't wear the same clothes every day in it. When it is time for our harvest after we have nurtured our plants, we do not take our crates inside. I use buckets to harvest my fruits and take them to the foyer and I will also separate them whether it's the small fruits or large fruits - grade according to size; not only size, but ensure that they have no flaws. They must be of a certain quality, and then I make sure now that I take them immediately to the factory."
This quick delivery eliminates the need to put the containers with vegetables on the ground or anywhere else for storage, significantly reducing the risk of bruising or other damage. And this pays off, especially in light of the stringent standards set by the processor.
Ebanks explained: "They examine the stuff when I get there, but I am not worried because whatever I take there is excellent-quality produce, because I carry out good agricultural practices at all times, including proper record keeping."
In recent times, the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar has sent up the cost of imported inputs such as pesticides, other chemicals and fertilisers. For farmers tied to a contract price, this cuts into their thin profit margin. This notwithstanding, Vivienne Ebanks remains committed to farming, even as she advocates for a system to accommodate the excess produce and eliminate the cycle of gluts and shortage which has hampered local production for decades.