The limitations of agriculture



Sunday, January 16, 2011    

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In my column last Thursday (Oversupply of vegetables was predictable) the point seems to have been missed by some that it is in Jamaica's interest to have a viable farming sector.

The word 'viable' in the context of describing the farming sector must be qualified. The majority of our farmers are considered 'small farmers', having less than a hectare of land in production. They engage in the activity, not to prosper but to survive. Farming (including labour power to larger farms, non-farm enterprises and individuals) and the construction sector account for the vast majority of employment among those in the lower end of Jamaica's labour power. And sadly, the lower end of Jamaica's labour power constitutes a significant majority of the Jamaican workforce.

At present the price of vegetables is inevitably headed towards less than 10 per cent of what they fetched during the last three months. This is directly due to the devastation of crops during heavy rains last September and the rush to resuscitate farms and produce the next crop.

One reader wrote, in response to my column, "I am surprised that you have taken the stance that you have. I have three children and I am overjoyed at the significant lowering of the price of vegetables. Should we who are in the majority pay high prices just to support farmers who are in the minority? I hope the lower prices last forever. Shame on you."

The point that I should have stressed in my column last Thursday is that it cannot be in the interest of the Jamaican householder that the farming sector continues its outdated method of farming. Perversely one could apply that to support to concerns of the reader, that is, if the farming sector wishes to be over-efficient at the wrong time, then it should pay for its poor planning.

A trip to the island's breadbasket region (South St Elizabeth, Manchester, sections of Clarendon) indicated a massive oversupply of vegetables. Acres upon acres of tomatoes, cabbage, melons which are expected in the next week or so to fetch $10 to $20 per pound. On one farm I saw a farmer feeding his hogs mounds of sweet potatoes. Many of these farmers will not even break even or end up with funds to resupply the farming inputs for new production. This just cannot be sensible farming, and although the oversupply makes for good political mileage, I would implore the agriculture minister to hammer some sense into the RADA specialists so that they can do the same to the farming sector.

I am unaware that there is any large agro-processing entity prepared to absorb the oversupply. Jamaican vegetables are consumed on home soil and I am certain that even in the case of tomatoes, it is much cheaper to import tomato paste or concentrate for the production of ketchup.

Those at the base of the labour market need to learn to better protect themselves because their labour power is all they have.

In the next month many farmers in South St Elizabeth will be dumping vegetables because it will not be worth the effort to transport their produce to the main road areas. Considering that this situation has been a recurring decimal for umpteen decades, it seems to me that this column is a grand waste of space.

In the interim I would advise householders to purchase only the local produce which is, after all, much better tasting than the bland stuff (especially carrots) that is imported.

AMC was a product of the JLP Government of the 1960s

I was corrected by a reader who pointed out that the Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC) was not instituted by the PNP Government of the 1970s.

As far as I am concerned, it matters little if a good programme was politically underwritten by either JLP or PNP. But now, even I can recall doing work at the AMC in 1971, one year before Michael Manley burst upon the political scene.

Said the reader, "You attributed the AMC construction to Michael Manley. If my memory serves me right, it was built around 1969/70 under William McClaren, the then minister of rural land development, and JP Gyles, then minister of agriculture in the Hugh Shearer administration. McClaren was doing things to domestic agriculture that Tufton is doing now. The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Another wrote me to point out that the introduction of the mini-sett yam in the 1970s was stopped short by more than just the traditional nature of our farmers.

"They became another victim of our soil health problem. The smaller pieces when put in the ground got overrun very easily by the disease build-up. Same thing like the ginger problem."

With all the kudos given to Agriculture Minister Chris Tufton, not much has been heard from him on the very troubling soil health problem. According to the reader, "Over a year now, the Soil Health Steering Committee put together the first Jamaica Soil Health Training Manual. It is still waiting for the minister to officially release it."

This doesn't sound like the trend-setting minister of agriculture and fisheries. How about the release of the manual, minister? Should we hold our breaths?

The pressures of poverty

My article two Thursdays ago about a 16-year-old girl caught up in the wrong side of life elicited quite a few e-mails. One reader chided me for constantly writing about the poor and suggested that "people should take responsibility for their own actions".

In a socio-economic atmosphere of scarce resources, increasing poverty levels, poor education and a nation prone to violent behaviour, I can well understand that even if Jamaica should be visited by the most visionary political leadership and foreign and local investments should rain on us like manna from heaven, in any grand, workable plan to effect meaningful change in the next generation (25 to 30 years) there will be some who will fall outside of any social safety net devised.

One man who says he comes from an inner-city setting wrote me the following. "I read your column about that young girl who your friend said, 'She done.' Many of the mothers of these girls do not have either the skills, the education, the patience or the male support to deal with their daughters going astray.

"The girls dem nowadays bad and when they decide that they want man nothing can stop them. Last week, a woman on a street nearby burnt her 14-year-old daughter on her arm with hot water because she was sneaking out at nights to see a boy who lives in the neighbourhood. People told me that her mother hot the water in the microwave for almost an hour and called her nicely to go to shop, but when she stretched for the money, that's when she poured the hot water on her hand.

"It looked as if the skin had melted off and left the bone. Many people were upset about the treatment given to the little girl. And with all of the previous bad treatment she has had, she never listens. Her father beats her bad too, if he hears about she and man, sometimes him kick, gunbutt, box, punish her, but she never listens.

"Do you have an answer for that situation?"

I am no counsellor, but it is obvious that both parents have allowed the matter to slip away too far. It is quite possible that with the mother's limited education and possible numerous other children, she is trying to cope, within her own limited understanding. But she is under immense pressure. Assuming that the father is more visitor than actual father, he is of no earthly help. The mother needs to seek the assistance of the teacher at the school who is most in touch with the girl or the pastor at the church nearest to them.

Dysfunctions such as this are unfortunately not rare in dense, inner-city surroundings where violence is lauded and seen as the first resort in disciplining children. My parents believed in the maxim, 'spare the rod and spoil the child.' My father was quite adept at applying the rules that were the norm then, but I can remember that the lecture before the belt was applied was more unbearable than the actual flogging.

As an adult I swore never to apply the same treatment to my children, although as my boys became taller and bigger than me there was always the temptation to 'test' daddy. The many factors that come into play when poverty moves from an empty plate to its lodgement in the mind will often make such situations as this mother burning her child hopelessly irreversible.

Certainly if this child was taken to a doctor, the mother (and the daughter) would have lied about the incident. And even if the police should become involved and the mother is arrested and charged, with the girl removed to a 'place of safety' in a home for girls, there is still no guarantee that she can see a reversal in her relationship with life.

It is quite likely that the child will need analysis and long-term counselling, but the problem of her returning to the same 'stinking' environment is the greatest trap facing her.

This is a tough and often unkind world where there are no easy answers.

The dangers of buying Jamaican furniture

A few years ago, I walked into a well-known furniture establishment close to Half-Way-Tree with the intention of purchasing a dresser. Immediately my eye caught a particular design and my choice was aided by the 'Made in Jamaica' logo.

After Chupski and I haggled (she wanted to purchase a foreign-made one) we decided on my choice. A little over a year later (long after the last payment had been made) I noticed that in the mid-section of the five foot base of the dresser there was a significant 'belly' or, to put it another way, what should have been a straight line was now curved.

It was obvious what had taken place. The lumber used at the base was too flimsy and because of the curve, the drawers at the base had to be forced into opening.

On contacting the company, the response was relatively speedy. They sent the secondary supplier or, the person whose company had made the dresser. When the replacement arrived, the base was sturdier and my problem was solved. Or so I thought.

A week after that, the drawers could not be opened freely. The problem? Where the runners had spaces for multiple screws, only two were used in every runner. In quick time some of the screws became loosened and for over a year now we have 'parked' the dresser.

Am I interested in a replacement? Absolutely not. My money back? No!

In fact, I want to have no further contact with the establishment and I have been doing my best to tell my friends to avoid doing business with that particular entity.

In the 1970s, the Jamaican furniture industry had viability when compared with the quality, design and pricing of its foreign counterparts. In recent times, exquisitely designed imported modular furniture has severely reduced the local input in the furniture market. While there are still local manufacturing establishments trying their best to keep up with the imported modular furniture, one would have hoped that the one supplying the company I had bought the dresser from would not have scrimped on quality or embarked on the utter stupidity of losing a few screws.

A few more of Jamaica's gifts to the world

I am grateful to Dr Lloyd Eubank-Green, through his book, Jamaica's Gifts to the World for solving an important puzzle for me.

For many years I had no idea that Bell Road off Marcus Garvey Drive was named in honour of a native son of the soil — someone who looks like 95 per cent of our people.

According to the book in speaking of Claude Bell, after he had returned from Egypt where he had seen the river Nile and learned about various tools and machinery used to build roads, houses and waterways to get water from the river: "In 1938, the people were uneasy because they wanted more jobs, better pay and living conditions. Claude Bell was asked to help and he had just the plan. There was a great swamp called Tinson Pen which covered acres of lands which were not in use. He asked to transform the swamp into dry land.

"Hardly anyone believed he would succeed. He reminded them quite rightly that there had been swamps on the airport road and it was he who cleared them to allow the good road to be built just before the onset of World War II. Thousands of people were employed by the project and he made use of the shift system so that everyone could earn some money. It was not unusual for the workers to find crabs, shrimps and wild ducks which they ate.

"It was not long before the land was drained to produce dry land. A wide road called Foreshore Road was built, bordering the dry land. It was linked to three miles where Spanish Town Road meets Hagley Park Road. The road was later named Marcus Garvey Drive."

I had known of Professor Jonathan Farley, the Math whiz who was badly disrespected and shabbily treated by the UWI Mona Campus when he was recruited to head the Maths Department there, but I had no idea of his Jamaican roots.

In Dr Eubank-Green's book it states, "In 2004, Professor Jonathan Farley, who is considered bright and an authority on Mathematics, was the recipient of the Harvard Foundation's Scientist Award in recognition of outstanding achievements and contribution in the field of Mathematics. The son of a Jamaican mother, Professor Ena Farley, a former Regent for the state of New York, the young Farley co-founded the phoenix mathematical systems modelling."

There is scarcely an area of Mathematics that Farley has not explored and mastered. "As chief scientist for his company, Phoenix Mathematics, he and his partners Dr Stefan Schmidt and Lennox Farrwell have developed mathematical and software tools to help with counter-terrorism and to anticipate trends in the stock market. He is also a co-founder of Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting, which offers advice for movies that have a math or science element.'

A presentation of two more of Jamaica's Gifts to the World, compliments of Dr Eubank-Green.





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