Daughter of the soil
Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
Describing herself as a farmer's daughter from St Mary, Sandra McLeish (nee McKenzie) is proud to share the fact that she now qualifies as a farmer in her own right.
Having bought an old coffee farm in Shrewsbury, Portland, she is now committed to transforming it into an agroenvironment project, to dovetail with plans for construction of a factory in the parish and to cultivate fruits and vegetables to be used in her Springvale Enterprise line of salad dressings and vinaigrettes.
Her roundabout journey to self-fulfilment and, hopefully, eventual financial success makes an interesting narrative.
A marine biologist by training, McLeish found herself being pushed into the position of team leader at work, a situation she considered a misfit. "Every boss I've had kept pushing me into business, wanting me to be the supervisor or the one planning the event, or programme management, and I didn't have the skills set," she told Flair. She continued, "I decided I needed an MBA to equip me, so I did that, specialising in programme management, and worked in the environmental field for about seven years."
Her true home
More than 10 years ago, there was a job offer in Trelawny, but McLeish declined on the grounds of distance and ended up taking a job with the Ministry of Health, where she is still employed today. Having worked the CARICOM Secretariat meant living outside of Jamaica for extended periods, but she always considered Jamaica her only true home, turning down the option to migrate to North America.
Having grown up in Hampstead where her father did farming and her parents later operated a supermarket in Port Maria, Sandra and husband Richard, now own and operate their own business - Springvale Enterprises, which produces a fine line of local fruit and herb-based salad dressings and vinaigrettes. So, it's probably no surprise that this St Mary girl, despite all her achievements, still seems firmly 'grounded'.
"I'm a big fan of land because God's not making anymore, so I truly believe that we need to own land," she told Flair. So when the opportunity to acquire what she describes "the most beautiful piece of property in Portland" she was actually caught off guard. It happened in 2006 when she followed a friend to check out a piece of land he was committed to buying in the parish. She told Flair that after an hour of hiking, during which they had passed four waterfalls, when her friend saw his dream property, he was disappointed and frustrated.
The memory of that moment is still fresh in McLeish's mind. She recalls, "When we finally found it, he said he couldn't see a farm there. I thought he was crazy, so I said, 'You don't want it?' He said no and I asked 'Are you sure you don't even want it as a partnership?' and he say no, no. To be fair, though, we went through a lot of bush, but I just saw the sheer beauty of nature because I had it in my mind as some sort of ecotourism project. I fell in love immediately and pressured him for a long time but he said he was not interested. He didn't even want a partnership, so I said OK and I went in, and that was how I became a farmer."
Thereafter, McLeish would travel to Portland most weekends to visit her farm and get to know the people in the area and try to transform the property into a working farm. But being a woman and an absentee owner presented its own set of challenges, and her best efforts did not have the desired effect. But she had sentimental attachment to the land, and the fact that Shrewsbury is located next to Fruitful Vale, where her father grew up, was a major factor in keeping the dream of the St Mary native alive.
With the support of her husband, she now plans to relocate their business to Portland and establish a factory to produce an expanded line of Springvale Enterprises products. Currently, they have to source most of the company's raw material from Jamaica Exotic Flavours and Essences in order to guarantee a consistent supply, an arrangement they are hoping to change in the near future.
The aim is to provide an avenue for farmers to market their fruits, vegetables and herbs, and in the process, contribute to the development of the area - their way of giving back. With her husband's extensive knowledge of food chemistry, her business acumen and their hard-working staff, McLean is confident Springvale can play a significant role in achieving import replacement and play its part in slashing the annual food import bill of US$1,000,000.