Charmaine Blair-Stewart makes farming look good

Sunday, October 21, 2018

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Flanking the east flowing Plantain Garden River in the St Thomas valley are farmers working long hours for seven days in the fields to produce a variety of crops. Forty-four-year-old Charmaine Blair-Stewart is one of them, growing cassava for brewing giant Red Stripe through the company's local raw material sourcing initiative, Project Grow.

But she doesn't fit the stereotype of a farmer.

For one, she dons classic blue jeans paired with a blouse and cardigan in the fields, complemented by manicured nails and braided hairstyles. And having attended modelling and etiquette school as a young woman, she has retained deportment skills.

“People tell me that I'm not a real farmer because I don't look or sound a particular way. But what does a farmer even look or sound like? I am not going to change who I am to fit into a stereotype. This occupation should not limit me to wearing old clothes and worn water boots,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

She continued, “Farming has been stigmatised as being dirty, wearing stained clothes and carrying produce on your head, when that is not the whole picture. It is a lucrative business that, when invested in and done correctly, the profits are bountiful. I have proven that there is cash in cassava.”

Born and raised in the parish, Stewart attended Morant Bay High School where she found pleasure in studying English language. She later became inspired to share her passion for the subject by stepping into the role of English teacher at Seaforth High School. Stewart then transitioned to being a housewife when she married her first husband. Upon their divorce, she turned to farming, planting onions and peppers, among other cash crops.

Off the field, Stewart found love and remarried. However, her bliss was short-lived as a result of her second husband's unexpected passing which caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression.

“We were married for only two months and eight days. My new-found happiness was snatched from me. I've never felt such pain or loneliness in all my life. I could not carry out my daily tasks normally because I had lost all hope,” Stewart said in recollection of the experience.

She said she was able to refocus when she learnt about Project Grow through the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) which operated the agro-park on which she farmed. The programme recruits independent farmers and young people to grow cassava which is used to replace imported high maltose corn syrup in Red Stripe's brewed products.

The opportunity provided Stewart with training in cassava production as well as a direct and stable market for her product. It also brought therapy.

“Being on the farm planting cassava was therapeutic. I found life in the rich soil and fresh air and so I regained hope because I now have something to look forward to,” Stewart told the Career & Education.

“Red Stripe's Project Grow has been a blessing to my life as it is reigniting my passion and providing me with healing,” she said.

Project Grow has helped many others like Stewart to pursue their dreams, with the initiative copping the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association's (JMEA's) Vision 2030 Corporate Social Responsibility Award of the year.

Bevene Martin-Dickenson, parish agricultural manager at RADA's St Thomas office, attested to the project's impact on the ground.

“Project Grow breathed life into Plantain Gardens by providing employment and most importantly a flourishing market for farmers' produce. It is my hope that even more will be done with the available land in the area as Red Stripe can utilise it for their initiative, especially now when the sugar factory in Golden Grove is about to cease operations. Cassava would be the way to re-engage disheartened sugar-cane farmers and introduce them to a new type of agriculture,” she said.

Project Grow started in 2017 with the primary objective of increasing Red Stripe's use of locally-sourced raw materials — especially cassava starch – to 40 per cent by 2020. The company's website says that up to 10 per cent cassava starch is currently used in brewing Red Stripe and Dragon beer, with plans to increase that to 15 per cent by year-end.

Some 3,000 acres are under cultivation with capacity to process 100 tonnes of cassava root into starch.

“We want to source 80 per cent of Red Stripe's cassava tuber needs from small and medium sized farms, with the other 20 per cent coming from Red Stripe operated farms, which will act as nurseries for planting material and demonstration plots for research and farmer training,” the Heineken-owned company explained.

The project provides full-time employment for some 162 youth between the ages of 18-35 on Red Stripe operated farms, with hundreds more as outgrower contractors.

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