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JAMAICAN ON A MISSION: Adam Miller's Potosi Farms

Sunday, August 19, 2012

PUMA may have just got wind of Adam Miller's farming exploits, giving him a glowing profile on their website last week. But we were always 'in the know', and recognised him at this year's Jamaica Observer Food Awards with not one, but two awards. Miller gives SO a first-person account of the whens, hows and whys of his passion for farming.

I've been around agriculture all my life. I've been in love with it from as far back as I can remember, walking through banana and cane fields or amongst cattle with my grandfather, whom I would in later years recognise as my hero. As an agriculturalist himself, he saw in me a fascination with agriculture and our country that possibly reminded him of his own passion. He single-handedly fostered my developing love for the outdoors and all that grows.

Growing up in rural St Thomas on the mountain above Morant Bay, we had no boundaries, no neighbours and almost no roads. Our property consisted primarily of cattle, banana, cane, peppers, and coconuts. Mixed within were small plots of vegetables - less for market sale and more for household use. I recall the freedom I had, roaming uninhibited around the fertile hillside, all the while gorging myself on cane, mangoes, bananas, guavas and cherries, often to the point of sickness, then rinsing off and soaking up the country goodness in Nutts River for the second half of the day. Day's end would find my grandfather coming home from work, usually collecting me halfway up the road to our house, and the most wholesome family time was spent reviewing the day's activities.

I also have vivid memories of the patchwork mountains surrounding Serge Island, where my love for livestock and animals in general developed. I spent countless childhood days in the milking parlours covered in filth, in the calf pens feeding newborns from a bottle, and riding on the back of a trailer throwing hay into each pen. Veterinary visits served to deepen my love for animals, and the treatment of the sick ones was a consuming passion.

Then, at a time when many were seeking better opportunity for their families, I was pulled from the land and life I loved when my parents moved to Miami, where I went kicking and screaming. I vowed that upon gaining control of my own life, I would be back.

University years found me studying Dairy Science & Agricultural Business at Louisiana State University. Fittingly, I was a dedicated member of the Dairy Science Club, took part in the student rodeos, and not surprisingly maintained farm animals as pets. I raised my own heifer from birth, Chloe, whom I trained to walk alongside me anywhere, untethered, often covering miles at a time along the Mississippi River levees and, on the odd occasion, across campus to the open lot next to my rowing practice facility. Among my brood of pets were two broiler chicks I had saved after they had been used by the veterinary school for training and were destined for the zoo as food! Those chickens grew to enormous proportions in our yard, and eventually eclipsed our Doberman as the "watchdogs" of the household.

Over the years that I spent at university, it was clear that I was preparing myself to come home and make the life for myself that I remembered, with hopes I could work alongside my grandfather.

Two weeks after arriving home, the opportunity arose to gain valuable dairy experience working in New Zealand for a few months. I jumped at this and within days I was working on a farm in Te Kowhai, just north-west of Hamilton in the Waikato district. This would prove to be a most valuable experience, as upon returning to work with Serge Island, I led major changes to incorporate much of what was learned during my time there — changes that resulted in greater efficiencies and productivity, and at the time became process and equipment benchmarks for the local dairy industry.

All was not well, though. While away in NZ my hero fell ill, and I returned to Jamaica and went from the airport directly to the hospital. For four weeks I spent every night with him in the hospital bed. Nothing could be done to save him, and my grandfather returned home for the last week of his life. He died, leaving the greatest void in my life to date. Every day I wonder if he can see me, and if he realises how important he was in shaping my life even today. He taught me how to appreciate our land. He planted the seed of agriculture in my head, fostered its growth within my heart, and instilled in me a dedication to farming and Jamaica that has been the cornerstone of my life despite the incredible odds and long line of naysayers.

After 10 years I left Serge Island, taking up the opportunity to manage an organic beef farm in Trelawny. The property, Pantrepant, had long been regarded as one of very few prime cattle farms in Jamaica, with pedigree specimens of Jamaica Red Poll & Brahman breeds. Many of the cattle sold are for breeding purposes, to farms interested in improving the quality of their own herd. This opportunity gave me my first experience with not just beef cattle farming, but anything organic. Along with the cattle, we raised sheep, chickens, ducks, and two dozen horses.

It was while at Pantrepant that my interest in sustainable agriculture began to take shape. It was impossible to avoid being consumed by it. Producing food on the basis of working within the boundaries of Mother Nature, enhancing soil health and biodiversity of the farm was logical thinking to me. This was important for our own health, that of our customers, and the health of our environment. Although I knew very little about it, I realised also that if even one successful model of sustainable production could be created in Jamaica, it could serve as an example to the wider agricultural sector, dominated by smaller subsistence farmers, that there was an environmentally appropriate way to produce and from which to earn a living.

So we started a small-scale vegetable farm, operating with organic principles. Having to do things in an unconventional manner meant re-educating myself about everything I thought I knew about farming. The learning curve in organics is very steep, and being in the tropics steepens the curve even more. The productivity of the farm, like many sustainable/organic operations, had an initial boom in production. After a few months, though, our inexperience began to show, and we learned mostly by trial and error about organic pest control and the critical role of composting/soil building.

There was much improvement to be made. It was at that point that I met Michael Ableman, who was brought on board to give us the opportunity to learn from the best. Michael has become a leader in many realms. He's a respected author, photographer, and sought-after public speaker, but at his core he is a master organic farmer. He has been practising organics for over 35 years, and has earned the success and the reputation as being one of the best in the business. Through his efforts on and off the farm, he has helped to transform the concept of sustainability from an offshoot idea and thrust it into one of the most important topics of today's world.

With Michael's brief mentorship under my belt, we started at Pantrepant what was to become Jamaica's first legitimate-scale Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programme. The small vegetable farm was able to supply almost 100 families islandwide with a weekly selection of fresh, organically grown produce delivered to their door. This made waves locally, and quickly we had a waiting list longer than our customer list.

Unfortunately though, the programme was to be short-lived, lasting only one year, as the required infrastructure and investment to grow the new business was unavailable. Too much else was requiring of limited resources to continue the produce business.

At this point I truly began to recognise the value of what we had created, and see the true interest within our local market. Here was a sector of the Jamaican population that was legitimately interested, and willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. We had added the convenience of a door-to-door delivery service, which sort of sealed the deal. Despite having to stop our CSA programme at Pantrepant, I had seen the potential, which was enough for me to begin thinking of going out on my own.

Shortly after the closure of the CSA programme on Pantrepant, Marika and I took the plunge and invested in our own land. Beautiful, fertile, with a mile of cascading river passing through it, we began cleaning up the historical property of Potosi, of which we secured 83 acres.

We had planned to have the farm up and running in a hurry; three to five months was what we expected. We wanted to take advantage of the market we'd created, which was now again void of products they loved. What we did not expect was that the bureaucratic process of securing financing, and Ministry of Agriculture equipment waivers would consume almost 12 months!

During the year of "down time", I was able to look further into my interests in sustainable farming, and how it could or should fit into Jamaica's agricultural landscape. I was hearing of the poisoning of our rivers from farmland run-off, the contamination of drinking water sources by chemical residues soaking into the water table, the continued dying off of reefs within our in-shore waters, and not surprisingly, the consistent findings of chemical pesticide residues on agricultural produce for sale in local markets. Sustainable practices were the answer to most of these problems. If I could develop a model for others to follow, as proof that this type of farming works in Jamaica, it could be the beginning of something huge -- a transformation of our agricultural sector!

Our vision for Potosi was evolving beyond just being a farm, and began to include an educational component geared towards farmers interested in moving into sustainable practice. Of course, this vision would take a while to realise; after all, we hadn't broken ground on the farm yet!

But in September 2011 our equipment landed and we officially broke ground. It took months to complete land clearing, rehabilitating old property roads, overhauling the old water pumping system and underground lines, and finally the land preparation for our first planting. Once the land was prepared, all seeds were sown and we couldn't wait to see the first signs of germination. Our first harvest would be due in April 2012.

Nothing brings a deeper sense of satisfaction and a greater understanding of the natural world than growing your own food. It is an emotional process to foster the development of anything living; you are in control of its development or its death... Our first harvest further ignited in me the passion that sometimes gets eased aside and replaced with the everyday issues.

In our short existence, we have moved from strength to strength. I daresay well oiled, far from it in fact, we continue to replicate our successes and learn from our failures. This seems to be the only true way to grow. Customers are loyal, supportive, and provide us with the answers before we even ask the questions.

Our vision at Potosi continues to take shape each day that the farm develops. We have realised our potential to serve as a model for others to follow. This is why we are establishing a network of community farmers who already are, or are interested in, moving into sustainable production. The more we can support them through regular training, sharing of resources, and mentorship, along with assistance of marketing their produce, the better off Jamaica will be. We want to see Jamaica move forward in a sustainable way. We require a direction that considers the long-term effects and benefits of our present-day actions. A sustainable revolution in the way we approach agriculture will improve our local food security, improve employment through more viable community farms, improve the health of our people, rehabilitate communities, reduce foreign exchange requirements, bolster the value of the food, beverage, and tourism sectors, and rehabilitate the health of our land, sea, and rivers. The list of benefits could continue. Where are the negatives? Is there any good reason to focus our agricultural resources on anything that does not have sustainability at its core?

I have yet to be convinced otherwise.

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