Manchester farmers bullish on sweet potato business

Shamille Scott Business reporter scotts@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, December 07, 2012

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A group of 20 farmers in Manchester are today more confident about the marketability of their sweet potatoes than ever before.


Their sudden burst of optimism comes after completing a capacity building project — the World Bank funded Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI) programme of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF).


Under the programme, the farmers not only learned how to increase production, they received training on how to apply fertilisers and pesticides as well as how to develop their business.


A specific objective of the programme, which started in October 2010, was to increase the earning potential of the farmers through better access to various markets, including exporters, regional and international importers and local middlemen.


"Prior to the project, the farmers were selling to higglers for the local market. Those who exported sweet potatoes, were not always assured their produce would be bought," said Vincent Thompson, agricultural specialist at JSIF.


Buyers meetings were held with exporters to ensure that the farmers had a ready market — Belle Tropicals became the exporters of the Manchester-grown sweet potatoes.


"We learnt that while fertilisers could help with quantity, quality was equally important," said Neville Dixon, farmer and president of the Top Plowden and Wigton Sweet Potato Growers Association.


Fertilisers were usually applied without much thought and strategy, he said.


The farmers were also trained in integrated pest management by the Rural Agricultural Development Agency (RADA).


"My farming techniques were completely transformed for the better," said Janett Heron. She now knows the amount of fertilisers to be applied to the acreage depending on its size.


Scouting, an alernative to pesticide and a manual means of preventing the spread of insects was also taught.


"Before JSIF, I used to produce on a small scale. The resources and support given helped me to plant an acre more," Heron said.


Heron, who plants tomato, yam, cocoa, and sweet pepper on a five-farm acre land, used less than a quarter-acre of land for sweet potatoes.


The farmers, who planted all of last year, shifted their production model. Rather than planting sweet potatoes of different varieties, the group shifted to one type, the "Uplifter sweet potato," Thompson said


This shift opened the door for that variety of sweet potato to reach the Canadian and UK markets because of its attractive appearance.


"Uplifters's are easy to peel, they don't have any curves," she said, adding that its features make it acceptable for the overseas market.


Dixon interjected that, "Every now and then, buyers seem to gravitate to a certain type. It's the 'Uplifter' that's in now."


Other varieties include 'Clarendon Blue Bud' and 'Fire on Land', he said.


Branching out into foreign markets is in every sense, serious business, Dixon noted.


"Those countries are strict when it comes on to quality. The colour, texture, shape and size must be considered," he said, noting that farming techniques affect the quality of the crops.


Local farmers must develop a business model for their farms, Dixon said.


"Gone are the days when farming was tilling the soil, and selling the crops," he said.


He advised that farmers must account for their spending.


"It's a business and an investment."


REDI/JSIF, taught the farmers the importance of bookkeeping.


"Now, we do checks and balances. We make a note of every money we spend," said Heron.


Before, the Manchester famers would just go to any stores and buy supplies. Now they shop around.


"We now use quotations and are cutting our expenses," Dixon said. "Most of the farmers had no clue about these things."


Partnerships have been formed between farmers and suppliers.


"Relationships have been built, and credibility has been established," said Dixon, who has been farming for four decades.


Some farmers broke under the pressure of the rigourous training of the past two years, he said. There were some who expanded their sweet potato plots by as much as five acres, while others recorded no growth.


"Some couldn't manage or were unwilling, so they fell back," he said.


Component two of the project is to design and develop marketing tools for targeted farmers' groups and agro-processors, including web pages hosted on the Jamaica Exporters Association website, business cards, fliers, brochure, packaging and labelling.


"The farmers have business cards. Anywhere we go, we leave them," Dixon said. The JEA helped us the designs and production of the cards.


They haven't stopped farming; the programme has made them more consistent, he said.


"After all, we sell locally and are now a part of a competitive export market," Dixon said.


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