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Farmer finds 'reprieve' in exotics, innovation

Published:Wednesday | August 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Roger Turner samples longans - hybrid lychees - one of the new crops he has at Tulloch Estates in Bog Walk, St Catherine.
Roger Turner inspects one of his hybrid jackfruits which carry a less pungent but nonetheless sweet aroma. - Photos by Zadie Neufville
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 Zadie Neufville, Gleaner Writer

Can you imagine avocadoes at the Christmas dinner table or jackfruit without that stain and pungent fragrance? Or, can you recognise longan, a small fleshy guinep-like fruit from the lychee family?

Welcome to Roger Turner's world at Tulloch Estates in St Catherine, where for generations beef and dairy cattle, sugar cane, bananas, coconuts and citrus stood side by side with 800 acres of pristine forest reserves. For more than a decade, the Jamaica-born, United Kingdom-trained agriculturalist has been developing and cultivating a range of unique crops in addition to the estate's traditional mix.

Fed up with problems associated with traditional crops, Turner is developing and cultivating a hybrid jackfruit that is smaller, less pungent and does not stain as badly as its popular cousin. Turner is also developing and cultivating carambolas, also known as star fruits, and longans. Jackfruit is now being planted on the 70 acres of land and star fruits are being planted on another 40 acres.

Preparing cocoa

Captivated by the possibilities of the local cocoa, said to be among the world's finest quality, he is preparing to plant cocoa trees on 50 acres of land.

"Crop development is one way to supply local needs, and to enhance special products for the export market," Turner said, noting that the future of local agriculture depends on finding and exploiting Jamaica's competitive advantage.

During the 27 or so years Turner has been back at Tulloch, he has farmed coffee, bananas, citrus, cane and coconuts. As a milk and beef cattle farmer, he is credited with improving the dairy herd through embryo transfer and with the introduction of the Brazilian Nellore AI to improve the local Brahman beef herd. In 1988, in an effort to improve the availability of grass to cattle during times of drought, he introduced the bale haylage system to Jamaica.

Turner, who was in 2008 appointed interim chairman of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, has faced several challenges on the estate. The 170 acres of banana he cultivates has been hit by disease and has in the past been destroyed by hurricanes and storms. His citrus groves were ravaged by the citrus tristeza virus in the mid-1990s and are now under threat from the citrus greening disease.

Tulloch Estates is now devoid of the signature cattle and dairy, which served as landmarks on the run-up and entrance to the estate, as a result of collapses in the milk and beef industries. The banana-packing house was closed when Jamaica ceased exporting bananas in 2008 and the coffee plants have vanished, a symbol of the collapse of the lowland coffee industry.

Branding crops

Turner explained that, in addition to low milk and beef prices and the challenges brought by extreme weather events, thieves frequently slaughtered his cattle leaving the heads and branded sections of the skins behind. Praedial thieves also seem to find his bananas and coconuts particularly attractive. So, in addition to crop development, Turner is experimenting with ways to brand crops as a deterrent to praedial thieves. So far he has successfully marked his bananas in such a way that the brand grows into the stem.

Turner has found time to collaborate with a packaging manufacturer to develop a local alternative to the imported plastic sleeves used to protect bananas in the field. According to Turner, there is a need for high-quality fruits in the local market. The product that is being tested at Tulloch has already caught the interest of other banana farmers.

In addition to crop development and innovations, Turner has been volunteering his programming skills to finding a single solution that will improve farmer regis-tration and solve post-harvest gluts.

Turner's love for farming and the land goes deep and is inherited. As for his innovations and develop-mental work: "I have lots of land. If I don't do the work, what am I going to plant?"