Wed | Mar 29, 2023

Born out of sugar, kept alive by Italian deal

Published:Wednesday | February 17, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Loading cane at Frome Estate in Westmoreland. - photos by Mark Titus
Frome sugar estate in Westmoreland. - photo by Mark Titus
Lucius Jackson, chairman, Jamaica All-Island Cane Farmers Association, Western Region, tests cane-juice quality on his farm in Grange Hill Westmoreland.

Mark Titus, Business Reporter

The year 1938 is significant for Frome, Westmoreland, not only because it was the year worker unrest started on a sugar estate in that western area of the country, fomented national unrest that gave prominence to the likes of William Alexander Bustamante, Norman Washington Manley and gave birth to modern trade unionism, party political organisation and ultimately Independence. In that year too, the operations of seven small sugar factories were merged with the construction of a central refinery at Frome.

Now, 72 years later, that same factory is making a major contribution to last-ditch efforts to rescue the ailing sugar-producing industry. The current effort to reap economic dividends from the industry, being led by the Government, involves privatisation and a deal under which the state was frontloaded with cash to supply Switzerland-based Italian refiner Eridania Suisse SA with the sweetener.

Wednesday Business
visited the factory and surrounding com-munities recently on the very day production resumed at Frome. The resumption followed a two-week hiatus that came weeks after a much-celebrated start-up of sugar extraction in early December.

Business decision

The gap allowed for the drying out of fields and improvement in the quality of cane in the fields after days of unusually heavy rainfall in a normally dry period.

"A business decision," was how the Government's point man on sugar divestment, Aubyn Hill, described the decision at the time.

He pointed out that low sucrose content of the canes, resulting from the rainfall, meant contract cane farmers would have been paid lower prices for the yields they supplied to the factory.

Chairman of the Westmoreland and Hanover Cane Farmers Association, Lucius Jackson, believed the reaping and milling start-up at Frome was premature.

"The factory is in excellent condition, the best it has been in for years, but they started too early," he told
Wednesday Business

"The canes were still young. Had they waited we would have gotten the maximum."

According to Jackson, himself a farmer, the haste to get production underway led to the use of partially matured cane being reaped even after the lull, which resulted in the sucrose being low.

Because of this, the factory's operators employed a method known as 'seeding the juice', involving granulated sugar being added.

"But it works," declared Jackson.

"They are making sugar like hell. It is a little less than they normally make but, trust me, it did work."

Deal talks

The first shipment of sugar from the current crop left Jamaica last week, bound for Europe where Eridania is said to command 30 per cent of the Italian sugar market.

The company entered talks with Government about the future of sugar operations at Frome, Bernard Lodge

in St Catherine and Monymusk in Clarendon after the Bruce Golding administration put up the Sugar Corporation of Jamaica-owned entities for sale.

An earlier deal to offload the assets collapsed in December 2008 after bidder, Infinity BioEnergy, the Brazilian-based ethanol producer, couldn't muster the US$125 million cash needed to seal the purchase.

The Italians inked a deal with the state which involved them providing a US$15 million pre-shipment facility to fund the 2009/2010 crop, in exchange for a Government guarantee to supply a minimum 79,000 tons of sugar, even as the European pondered the viability of the proposed takeover.

The money was used to prepare factories for the crop, fund replan-ting, irrigation and rehabilitate and acquire harvesting equipment.

Of J$600 million earmarked for factory rehabilitation, some $300 million was reportedly spent at Frome to purchase new mill rollers, bearings and other equipment.

Eridania has since scuttled its acquisition plans, proposing instead to continue the current forward-sale arrangement.

The pending decision created uncertainty for farmers who supply the factories.

"A lot of farmers were unsure whether they should do anything, and at the end only a minimal amount of cane was planted," the farmers' representative pointed out.

At Frome, the normal cycle for planting, fertilising and other pre-harvest activities was not followed, Jackson has contended.

"If you are going to plant cane you must start in January, by April land preparation must be finished, at which point you would focus on your cultivation practices, but that was not done,"

he said.

"With Frome, this was not done in the recommended time frame resulting in lesser yield."

Despite this, he is confident Government, which still operates the factory, will be able to fulfil its obligation to the Italians.

This year, SCJ Holdings, the vehicle through which Government owns and manages the sugar-producing concern, hopes to process 43,000 tonnes of sugar, compared with the 37,000 tonnes done last year.

In previous years, Frome, the largest sugar-processing plant in Jamaica, lost millions of dollars to the illicit burning of cane fields.

The police said more than 2,000 such fires were reported between 2004 and 2008.

More than 100,000 tonnes of cane, valued at almost $500 million, was said to have been lost to the illegal act during the 2008/2009 crop.

Despite this, the factory reportedly earned more than $2.5 billion from its operations, pumping an estimated $35 million per week into the economy of its feeder communities like Grange Hill,

Savanna-la-Mar, Bull Savannah, Trollo, Kendal, Grange, Townhead, Sterling, Banbury and Delphland.

The factory employs nearly 2,000 persons during the season, a similar number to those working on the private properties of some 1,700 farmers. Another 45,000 people are believed to

be indirectly employed, through economic activities spawned by the Frome sugar operations.

"This place, born out of sugar," Newton Campbell, who works as foreman for one of the contract farmers, told
Wednesday Business

speaking of Grange Hill, where he lives.

Factory importance

Many of the districts in these parts, know nothing else, so if Frome ever locks down, "dem goose cook," Campbell summed up the importance of the factory as, during the interview, he sipped a mixture of cola and rum, another important sugar cane product.

Grange Hill is one of the major towns in Westmoreland, next to the tourist resort of Negril and Savanna-la-Mar, the parish capital.

The factory is just two miles from this town, bursting with commercial activity on the Saturday morning
Wednesday Business

The journey through the hills, from Green Island in neighbouring Hanover, along the winding roadway to this town, en route to the Frome Sugar Estate, takes the traveller through acres of cane fields, bypassing communities whose residents depend largely on the continued production of the sweetener.

"Is not everybody that work in sugar here comes from this parish," offered Campbell, himself from Siloah, St Elizabeth, quite some distance away.

"Most of Hanover and parts of my birth parish depend on Frome staying in business, but only God knows what will happen after this crop."

According to Campbell,

he made the move to Frome decades ago, at a time when Appleton Estate in his own parish, was shedding staff to make way for

harvesting machines.

He and many others, he said, went to Frome because, in terms of work, they knew nothing but sugar cane farming.

Early ownership

The Frome Estate traces its early ownership to Christopher Morris, who came to Jamaica as part of the army sent out by Englishman Oliver Cromwell in 1655 to conquer the Caribbean and displace the early Spanish settlers.

After Morris' death, the estate passed from his daughter to Anthony Storer and remained the property of Storer's family until shortly after World War I when the demand, and subsequently the price, of sugar plummeted, resulting in planters suffering massive losses.

However, there was a resurgence of the sugar industry in the 1930s as a result of the restoration of preference prices for sugar produced in Jamaica. There was renewed interest in the industry, and the new business prospects attracted the attention of the British firm, Tate and Lyle.

The company bought seven small, old sugar factories including Frome, in the parishes of Westmoreland and Hanover. In a consolidation effort, all seven factories were merged and a new central factory built at Frome in 1938.

The history books record that large numbers of the unemployed converged at Frome looking for work during the construction of the new factory. The absence of work for many would-be labourers is cited as being among the factors that triggered the 1938 riots in 14 persons died and hundreds were injured.

The disturbances, which spread to other areas of Jamaica, proved a catalyst for the improvement of the conditions at the working class, as newly formed trade unions and political parties lobbied for increased worker benefits and rights.

The Frome central factory began operations on January 14, 1939, and was considered the most modern sugar factory in the Caribbean at the time, built at an estimated cost of £500,000. The facility is now one of six sugar operations in Jamaica and one of the two still in Government hands, the other being Monymusk.

The factory stands in the centre of Frome, a one-street village with houses lining both sides. Frome is said to have a population of about 5,000.

On the day
Wednesday Business
visited, there was hardly anyone in sight. A worker, dressed in his blue denim and donning a helmet, showed himself occasionally while another was asleep at the tyre shop next to the factory.

In a burnt cane field, a man pulled on a pair of overalls, as he prepared to cut cane from a two-acre property.

Sugar worker since 10

Stanley Fuller, sadi he has been working in sugar since he was 10 years old, when he was expelled from school. He has worked in almost every area of production and is now working as a driver with a leading private farmers.

While he still enjoys his work he worries that the factory may close its doors and he would have to start all over again. Unable to read and write, he is not sure what he would do if that should happen.

He is proud of the fact that all his children are doing well in school, including the eldest who is said to be attending university in Manchester.

"Is mi pension dat!" he declared, ending our brief chat and returning to his tasks.