BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Thyra Hudson was so pleased with last Friday's farmers' market in Mandeville, she visited twice. "This is my second trip," a laughing Hudson confessed as weighed down with bags of yam and assorted vegetables she stopped to talk with the Observer in the early afternoon.
"I came early and bought for myself and then I called my sister in Kingston to ask if she needed anything, and here I am, I had to come back," she said.
Hudson was among a stream of Mandeville residents flowing through the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) office from early morning until long after sunset to buy fresh vegetables and other produce at concessionary prices.
Mandeville apart, there were also special farmers' markets in Portmore, Denbigh in Clarendon, and Port Maria in St Mary last Friday as part of the agriculture ministry's drive to ease a glut of vegetables.
In Mandeville, farmers set up stalls in a rough circle around an unused swimming pool in the spacious backyard of what was once a hotel -- now housing RADA.
A cardboard sign told eager, smiling buyers that carrots were going for $20 per pound, tomato $20, lettuce $40, ginger $60/$100, pumpkin $40, yam $40. A quick check revealed many other items including cabbages, callaloo, dasheen, gungo peas, coco (tuber)...
"It nah go so fast but we a gwaan," declared farmer Richard Thompson of Coleyville, who noted that the previous week he had visited Portmore where "things go fast".
An enthused Hudson suggested the effort was a win-win for all concerned. "I am a person who goes to the market in Mandeville every Saturday and the prices I find here are reasonable. It's a little less than what you would get in the market ... I think they (authorities) should have it (farmers' market) periodically. It helps everybody ...there is a glut and if this is the way you can get rid of some of the excess then we should go for it," she said.
There was uncertainty as to how many farmers had actually turned out in Mandeville on Friday but general agreement that the numbers were a considerable improvement on the first effort in January.
"We booked over 30 farmers but we realise that some came who weren't booked," RADA's agriculture manager for Manchester, Donald Robinson told the Observer.
A beaming Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufton who arrived in the early afternoon along with RADA's CEO Al Powell said organisers had learnt from the experience of a few weeks ago and had "tweaked" the concept to improve it.
"We had to tweak it because for the first market many farmers did not believe it could work. Many committed to coming out but many did not turn out, while consumers came out in numbers but didn't have the variety... so we had to manage the process, we had to encourage the farmers to come out and we supported in terms of the logistics," Tufton said.
Logistical support included "helping out" with the trucking of produce from long distances, increased promotion and the provision of venues such as the RADA grounds.
Tufton was unapologetic about the Government's proactive role in trying to deal with the glut of vegetables as a result of bumper crops since the start of the year.
"The sector periodically has to be subsidised and it's not unique to Jamaica," he argued.
"In North America where you have the developed markets, when you have excess supplies, the Government goes and buys and stockpiles. Food security is about ensuring that you have consistent food supplies... so we have to protect our farmers any way we can," he said. "When you have excesses you have to find a way to manage the process."
Furthermore, he said it was an opportunity to encourage the concept of "eating what we grow" among a wide cross-section of the Jamaican population.
"We are trying to encourage consumers to consume more local foods. There are a lot of vegetable crops here, a lot of root crops, and because it is coming straight from the farm it is fresh," said Tufton.
However, he said the Government was mindful that farmers' markets, such as those on Friday, do not become a source of undue competition for vending in the traditional markets.
"One of the things we have to review is the actual day that the market is held. We don't want it to compete with existing markets. We have to decide whether a Tuesday or Wednesday may be more appropriate as opposed to a Friday," said Tufton.
"We chose these locations (such as RADA far away from the Mandeville market) where we felt that kind of competition would be minimised. Portmore, for example, doesn't have a (traditional) market," the minister added.
While there were calls from some locations for more frequent farmers' markets, including weekly, Tufton said due diligence would have to precede any such decision.
"I think there is a case to be made for at least a monthly market, but I want to go back to the drawing board and get the technocrats in RADA and other ministry personnel to sit with me before we make the decisions," he said.
Robinson said that already the farmers' markets were providing a major bonus in terms of linkages between farmers and institutions such as schools and colleges, health institutions and even supermarkets.
"We had orders from institutions and were able to pack produce for health institutions, NCU (Northern Caribbean University), and other schools and even supermarkets," Robinson said. "Those are important links that were not there before that we are going to encourage, so now farmers and these institutions can make links on a weekly basis on their own."