MONTEGO BAY, St James - The Ministry of Agriculture has commenced the cultivation of two varieties of sorghum on two five-acre experimental plots at the Bodles Research Station, St Catherine, in a bid to ascertain if the crop can be grown viably in the island.
According to Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, the experiment forms part of Government's plan to ensure food security as well as to reduce food importation.
"If sorghum can be successfully grown here to replace corn as a feedstock, then we are going to promote it and we are going to do what is necessary to minimise the importation of corn and to make farmers make a livelihood out of growing sorghum," Tufton told farmers in St James earlier this month.
Noting that most of the corn that is being used as feedstock is imported, the agriculture minister argued that if suitable replacement if found, the country would save millions in foreign exchange annually.
Last year, the country imported roughly 270,000 metric tonnes of corn and cornmeal at a cost of three billion dollars. Of this amount, 90 per cent was used for feedstock.
Project director at the Agricultural Support Services Project (ASSP), Hershel Brown, who has responsibility for the sorghum project, told the Observer that the crop which was planted three weeks ago is growing at a satisfactory level.
The two varieties being experimented with - Fara Fara and FK5912 - are expected to yield 2,200 kg per acre.
"We are trying to determine adaptability and productivity and the intention is that once we have identified that they can be grown viably we will significantly expand production," Brown said.
Apart from the need to use sorghum as a feedstock, Brown said the agriculture ministry is also looking at growing it for "brewing purposes".
At least one of the island's brewing companies Observer sources say, is expressing an interest in using it as an ingredient in some of their products.
Tufton told the Observer that the Government has identified more than 1,000 acres of land in Amity Hall, St Catherine and in the Ebony Park area of Clarendon for the production of sorghum, if it is established that the cultivation of the crop is feasible.
These lands he said, would be cultivated by private interests who have shown a keen interest in the project.
Sorghum is a genus of numerous species of grasses, some of which are raised for grain and many of which are used as fodder plants. The plants which take three to four months to reach maturity are cultivated in warmer climates worldwide.
Sorghum, Brown said, is grown by a few farmers in the St Catherine and Clarendon areas and is used to feed livestock.
Meanwhile, the country should know within the next month the varieties of rice that will be cultivated on the island on a large scale.
"Within the next two weeks we should be fixed on the varieties that we would want to expand with, but I am very encouraged by what we have seen so far," Brown said.
Last year, the government began the cultivation of 12 varieties of rice on 20 acres of lands in St Catherine and St Elizabeth on an experimental basis, in a bid to ascertain the varieties best suited to be grown in the island.
The project is being funded by a grant of US$10,000 from the Caribbean Rice Growers Association, and has also received financial assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Brown said that most of the varieties have so far been reaped and the others are expected to be harvested soon, after which time they will be assessed and a final determination of the best varieties to be cultivated made.
The island has produced rice in fairly substantial quantities at various times in its history.
The move to re-establish the cultivation of rice, the Government had said, comes against the background of spiralling food prices and food security concerns.
The Ministry of Agriculture has projected that within the next 12 months at least 5,000 acres of rice will be under cultivation in various sections of the island.