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‘MONEY, MONEY, MONEY’ in organic agriculture

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-large South/Central Bureau

Sunday, March 16, 2014    

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Neil Curtis, who emigrated to the United States as a baby in 1972, knows from "personal experience" that there is "good money" to be made in Jamaican agriculture.

The way he tells it, that knowledge comes from a year he spent in Jamaica in 1995, buying and selling callaloo.

"I had a friend in Kingston who was affiliated to a supermarket and we started to sell callaloo... we would buy callaloo from family members in Bushy Park area (St Catherine) and we would pay them and take it to town and make X amount of money on it," recalled Curtis.

At the end of a year he had made an 800 per cent profit from the callaloo enterprise, boasted Curtis.

"I came to Jamaica with US$1,000, stayed a whole year with a rented car, with hotel expenses, and I was young so there were parties and everything; and I left Jamaica with US$8,000, so I know there is money in agriculture," he said.

That experience has been pivotal in the initiative by the non-profit Farm Up Jamaica founded by Curtis and backed by the Jamaican diaspora, to support Jamaican, agriculture through organic farming.

The organic method involves the use of natural fertilisers and pest control, instead of chemicals. Experts say a diet based on foods produced organically promotes good health and reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases.

When the Jamaica Observer caught up with Curtis recently, he was on the property of farmer Slater Garwood at Lower Prosper, three miles south of Santa Cruz, in the foot hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where an organic farm project focused on the production of Scotch bonnet peppers is ongoing.

Students from North Eastern University in Boston, USA, studying small farm holdings in Jamaica had volunteered a few hours to transplant seedlings grown organically in a greenhouse at Garwood's farm, to an open field.

The students' presence was only incidental — they having made contact through the Farm Up Jamaica website — but according to Curtis it showed that Jamaican agriculture also had potential for boosting the visitor industry.

"Basically what we are looking at is agro-tourism," said Curtis, gesturing towards about 20 US students planting pepper seedlings on Slater's hillside farm.

Tourism aside, it's the core aim of increasing Jamaican food production for the export market, reducing expensive imports while at the same time helping farmers to become self sufficient that is driving the Farm Up Jamaica initiative, Curtis told the Sunday Observer.

Thus far, said Curtis, about 75 acres have been secured for the production of Scotch bonnet peppers mainly in sections of Westmoreland and St Elizabeth.

Focus is also being placed on onions for the Jamaican market which currently absorbs huge amounts of the imported product. A five-acre pilot project in organically produced onions has started at Duff House in the New Forest area of South Manchester to demonstrate the viability of that product.

Curtis — who has operated businesses in the United States and authored a book No God? Know God, though he says he subscribes to no religion — says sound business practise underpins the Farm Up Jamaica project.

While farming "like every other business is always a risk", Curtis said a growing "guaranteed market" for organic farm products in the United States and Europe is fuelling optimism for the project.

"Organic food is healthy food. When you go to America and Europe, if you not eating organic, you not eating," he said.

Curtis said that the Scotch bonnet pepper project was aimed at meeting the demand for hot peppers in the surging Jamaican beef patty market in the United States. Currently, he said, large beef patty manufacturers were taking up to 5,000 pounds of hot peppers every week.

Thus far, said Curtis, Farm Up Jamaica had spent about US$75,000 in partnering with Jamaican farmers on the organic projects. The idea, he said, was not to "hand out money" to farmers but to help with seedlings and technical assistance so they can fill the "ready market" that is available.

"We don't give farmers money, we give them the opportunity to start, and after (onset of disasters) the hurricanes, after economic fallout, we give them seeds to plant and ... help them to pay labour force. We plan to stay (close) to them through every season. We just want them to get going and we want to monitor them providing a market for them... so that we can come back and get (produce) every year, every three months, every five months, every six months," Curtis said.

"People are looking at agriculture as welfare but it is really wealth creation and that's what needs to come out of it," said Curtis.

Farm Up Jamaica, he explained, was working closely with the Jamaican Government and the Jamaica-based organic association, Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement (JOAM), to ensure the success and integrity of the project.

He has taken hope from a pledge by agriculture minister Roger Clarke that the Government is drafting a policy on organic agriculture, as part of its thrust to achieve greater levels of food security and safety for the country.

The advantage of government certification for organic produce would be that exporters would be able to brand their goods as "certified organic, not just organic" which would increase value, said Curtis.

A man of few words, Garwood, the host farmer on the pepper project at Lower Prosper, welcomed the Farm Up Jamaica initiative as an opportunity for he and his neighbours and himself to "improve life".

Shalon Gayle, of the agriculture ministry's Rural Agriculture Development Authority (RADA), who is keeping a watchful eye on the project at Lower Prosper, said that her agency was anxious to assist with any project which seeks to reduce imports and trigger exports.

"We will give technical advice and assist in any way we can," she said.

Barbara Stewart of JOAM said that her organisation was fully on board with Farm Up Jamaica in helping farmers "from start to finish" on the best practices of organic farming.

For Cyril Martin, councillor of the New Market division in northwest St Elizabeth, news of Farm Up Jamaica's project has brought visions of new outlets for his constituents in Ginger Hill who grow pineapples.

Martin visited Lower Prosper to see for himself and told the Sunday Observer that he would be undergoing a training course in organic farming in order to assist pineapple farmers in Ginger Hill.

"We want to get involved," Martin said

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