Thu | Dec 7, 2023

Letter of the Day | Growing potatoes in Jamaica is not viable

Published:Tuesday | October 3, 2023 | 12:05 AM


The Financial Gleaner of September 15 carried an article ‘No to local potatoes’. My parents were potato farmers and this has been an issue for a very long time. When the Christiana Potato Growers Cooperative was formed in the 1960s, there was hope that locally grown potatoes could supply at least a part of the growing fries (chips) market. Experiments were carried out and the local product was found to be unsuitable. Some of the reasons I remember were that the varieties cultivated were more for mashed potatoes, because of their starch content, shape, and storage capabilities..

On a recent visit to one of the major growing areas, I was horrified to see farmers reaping green, immature potatoes. I also noticed in a Gleaner article of September 28, page A2, a photograph of farmers in St Mary doing the same thing. Immature potatoes do not store well. They are tough, without flavour, and the resulting seeds do not grow well when replanted. Immature potatoes can make you sick since many persons do not know that potatoes are related to the deadly nightshade.

One of the popular varieties for chip making is the Burbank Russet, developed by the great plant breeder Luther Burbank. I understand this used to be grown in Jamaica long ago. The potato has quite an interesting history. It originated in South America and was brought to Europe by European explorers. It soon became a staple in Europe and Ireland, to the extent that, when the great potato blight decimated the industry in Ireland in the 1840s, it created the great Irish famine, resulting in a mass migration to America. It was brought to Jamaica in the 1890s by a Moravian minister, Rev George Lapp, who planted a small crop at Bethany Moravian Church in the Christiana area, hence the bulk of the industry still remains in that area. The blight got to Jamaica around the late 1930s and, since then, it has remained and, with all the spraying, which is a significant part of the cost, the yield has never been enough to result in huge profit for the farmers. (Coincidentally, about the same time the banana and pimento industries also caught a blight). One of the resulting problems is that the crop ripens down too suddenly, reducing the starch content and causing them not to fry properly.

Locally grown potatoes are expensive to produce. The seeds have to be imported for every spring planting, at a cost of $10,000 per 100lb bag. Fertiliser is about $15,000 for a 100lb bag. From land preparation and care to reaping could easily run another $50,000. The yield hardly exceeds 10 to one when you allow for damage, spoilage, worm infestation, etc. The American farmer may have hundreds of acres highly specialised and mechanised. One Englishman told a group of us long ago that Jamaican farmers are really gardeners, owing to their small farms using garden tools with little room for crop rotation and other scientific agricultural practices.

The reason, then, is clear to see why local potatoes cannot supply the chips demand, and the high cost makes it difficult for the average household to pay over $300 per pound, as now obtains in the local market. This may be tough, but that is the grim reality that we must face.