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Agriculture's big boom!

New Forest/Duff House agro park hailed as success

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large, South Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 17, 2014    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — An "oasis" is how Member of Parliament Michael Peart described the New Forest/Duff House agro park located on a strip of irrigated low land, shadowed by the towering South Manchester mountain range.

"What yu looking at is an oasis," Peart, swinging his arms wide, told journalists during a tour of the agro park last week.

"Right here green, every where else dry," he said.

Either side of the 700-acre New Forest/Duff House agro park and just a few hundred metres further south across the border in South East St Elizabeth, farm production is on hold. That's the result of intense drought, with very little rain since April/May.

It's a different story at the agro park. When the tour party led by acting Agriculture Minister Derrick Kellier visited, large green fields of vegetables and spices worked by industrious farmers, greeted the eye.

Everywhere spouting irrigation sprinklers nurturing a range of crops including cabbage, callaloo, tomatoes, lettuce, watermelons, escallion and thyme underlined the refreshing presence of irrigation water. The irrigation scheme was commissioned into service in tandem with the agro park last year March.

Organisers made the point that the agro park -- one of nine being developed across the island to boost domestic farm production and assist national food security --is in its infancy with only about half of the seven hundred acres under cultivation. It is currently accommodating about 300 small farmers.

Many of those farmers are 'licking their fingers' as the intense drought elsewhere has forced prices skywards.

Escallion and thyme farmer Harold Reid told the Jamaica Observer that a recent crop of thyme had been sold to vendors for $150 per pound at his farm up from $30, $40 when "things cheap". He had sold escallion for $100 per pound up from $20-$30 at other times "when it nuff".

Yet steep as these price rises have been, Member of Parliament for South East St Elizabeth Richard Parchment said that they would have been "much, much steeper" but for isolated dots of irrigation such as at New Forest/Duff House.

"If it wasn't for this area ... you wouldn't believe the prices," said Parchment who described the success so far of the New Forest/Duff House project as being of "monumental proportions".

Lenworth Fulton, head of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) said that the agro park has already significantly impacted production figures.

In the quarter, April to June, Jamaica's agricultural domestic production grew by 9.1 per cent with "Manchester growing by more than other parish because of this agro park," said Fulton. In fact, he said, "Manchester alone produced 21 per cent of all-island domestic food production" largely because of the New Forest/Duff House project.

It's a scenario that is driving calls for irrigation schemes to be extended through the rest of South Manchester and "across the train line" into South East St Elizabeth.

"When you come to New Forest you can see the contrast that irrigation brings," said Parchment who is continuously pushing for water schemes both domestic and irrigation for arid South East St Elizabeth.

"Down here green, beautiful and across the train line is brown and barren," Parchment added.

Kellier, who is acting for recovering Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke now overseas recuperating from a medical procedure, was in no position to make promises. Yet there could be no denying the imperative need for irrigation to sustain farming.

"Everyone can see the benefits of irrigation for sustainable agriculture," said Kellier. "If we want to grow (agriculture) we have to look long term as to how we can do much more where irrigation is concerned," he said.

He identified rain water harvesting and storage in micro dams as one way to approach the expensive irrigation problem.

Peart spoke of his own long-standing plans for a micro dam to harvest rain water which "rushes down" steep Plowden Hill in South Manchester and which could then be gravity-fed to hundreds of acres of low-lying farm lands.

The South Manchester MP who is also Speaker of the House of Representatives said that he had committed $2 million from the bauxite community development fund as "seed money" towards the concept.

Kellier said that the obvious success of the New Forest/Duff House project was ahead of launch of the ninth agro park planned for Nonsuch, St Mary. "Agro parks play a critical role in the government's growth agenda and indeed the food supply chain for the country and we can't afford for them to fail," he said.

Kellier visualised not just self sufficiency but a rich potential for exports fuelled by increasing demand from Jamaicans abroad. To that end experimental plots -- including for special varieties of sweet potato -- had been established at New Forest/Duff House to assess potential for successful growth in Jamaica.

Agriculture ministry consultant Derrick Deslandes told the Sunday Observer that increasingly main stream shops and stores in the major cities of North America and Europe were now catering for the demands of Jamaicans and Caribbean people.

Conrad Murray, head of the New Forest/Duff House, stressed the importance of "marketing" as production at the agro parks multiply; and as farming conditions get better with the return of consistent rain.

Murray welcomed the drive towards exports but said that first Jamaican hotels and supermarket chains should be showing far greater loyalty to Jamaican farmers by accepting local produce rather than imports. Also, he told the Sunday Observer, the hotel chains should eliminate the "middlemen" and deal directly with "reputable farmers groups".

He hailed the contribution of the GraceKennedy Group for its commitment to purchasing vegetables and spices from local farmers for its processing operations. "If Grace can do it, the hotels and supermarkets can do it too," he claimed.

Fulton conceded that with the end of the prolonged drought a natural result will be a rapid fall in prices and "depression" for farmers.

Part of the long-term solution, he said, was to get farmers adhering to the standards required for them to be certified exporters. Crucially, packaging houses were part of the development plans for agriculture as were import substitution initiatives which had reaped considerable success for crops such as irish potatoes and onions.

He identified the school feeding programme as having real promise in terms of soaking up local produce especially with the creation of such delicacies as carrot and sweet potato muffins. "If we can produce efficiently for the schools, we will have opened up a market for nearly a million young people," Fulton said.

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