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Racquel Powell's vision

JNBS loans officer steps with big plans to develop vegetable farming

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

Sunday, March 02, 2014    

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — All her life, 44-year-old farmer Carlleen Clarke of Potsdam, close to Munro College, has experienced the seemingly never-ending cycle of shortages and gluts.

Shortage will mean high prices and even windfall profits for those few farmers so fortunate to have secured the crop in question.

Glut leads to low prices and heavy losses.

Clarke lives in constant fear of the latter episodes of over-production which sometimes leaves farmers with no choice but to watch their crops spoil.

"We will work hard on our crops and when the time comes for it to sell there is no market," she said feelingly.

Just two weeks ago she suffered the latest such episode. She was unable to reap her luxurious crop of greenhouse-grown Romaine lettuce because there was simply no market.

"We will have to give it away and feed the rabbits with it," she told the Jamaica Observer with a dry chuckle.

But Clarke's daughter, Racquel Powell, a 27-year-old loans officer at Jamaica National Building Society's Junction branch, has had enough.

Last year Powell and her business partner Keeve Whyte decided they would no longer sit around and simply watch this cycle of bust and boom which has haunted Jamaican agriculture. They decided to do something about it by starting their own farm produce distribution enterprise in collaboration with local farmers.

So it was, that So Veggie — which Powell said will soon be registered as a company — got going last October.

The project involves the purchasing of produce from local farmers (including Powell and her mother's farm) and the personal delivery of neatly packaged boxes of vegetables and ground provisions to customers mostly in Kingston as well as Mandeville and Clarendon.

The first rule of So Veggie is to retail only Jamaican produce.

"We don't supply anything (farm produce) that is imported, if it's not readily available and we can't find a farmer to supply it, we ask our customers to accept a substitute," Powell told the Sunday Observer.

Powell, a former model and mother of a three-year-old son, said that a passion for her is to play her part in encouraging Jamaicans to "grow local and eat local" and in the process cut the nation's huge food import bill.

"Join us on our journey as we strive to reduce Jamaica's US$959-million food import bill by minimising food importation through the production of more local foods," says a message on the So Veggie website, www.soveggieja.com.

Internet avenues, including social media network Facebook, have been central to So Veggie's promotional and marketing drive.

"Our customers go online, see our advertisements, people will tell them about us, they will call us or send us an email with an order and we will deliver directly to them at their home or place of work," explained Powell.

Currently, on average, "about 30" veggie boxes are delivered weekly by So Veggie to customers, "mainly in Kingston". Prices per box vary widely, from as low as $800 to a high of about $7,000. "It all depends on what the customer wants," said Powell.

Fresh produce readily available in South St Elizabeth including lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, melon, cantaloupe, onions, escallion and thyme are staple products provided by So Veggie. This, for a target market of professionals,

often pressed for time to go shopping.

There is an increasing demand to also provide other produce such as yam and green banana, said Powell.

Further down the road, Powell expects So Veggie to be providing a "soup pack" with all the ingredients including yam, pumpkin, irish potato, cho cho, escallion, thyme, peppers and carrots — all properly prepared, peeled, washed and ready for the pot.

"To cook soup you have to sit down and peel yam, peel this and peel that, run up and down, that's why we call

(the planned So Veggie soup pack) time-savers, you pick it up, you go home drop it in the pot and cook your soup," she said.

"We have imported soups on our shelves (but) these things don't have the nutrients and they have preservatives. We are talking about more nutrition and no preservatives," she said.

As the business expands, Powell expects to work hand in hand with farmers in her community and beyond, towards gaining steady and continuous supply as well as sustainable and predictable earnings for all concerned.

She said that she wants to help farmers escape the "mek a money" mentality and to recognise that there is strength in unified, planned action that will provide control over the retailing of their products as well as allow them to regulate production, thereby minimising gluts.

She said that her job as a loans officer at the heart of the south St Elizabeth farming community has given her special insight.

"I say to farmers, 'If you are doing you farming the right way, if you are part of a group, you will have a monthly income, you won't make a money in January, and you don't see any money till December'.

"By that time (December) dem cut off your light, children out of school, everybody barely managing to get by... and I know this because I lend farmers money, I know their struggles," she said.

She dismissed talk of the difficulties in organising small farmers who are traditionally inclined towards individualism.

"Lots of things in life are very difficult," she said, "but there are many farmers who believe in this (her vision), they believe in it, they are waiting for us to get (established) so they can join us," she said.

Powell dreams of the day when So Veggie will be delivering "a thousand veggie boxes". But when that day comes, she said, she and her company won't be resting on their laurels.

The long-term vision, she said, is for the So Veggie "movement" to expand to include food processing, packaging and storage houses in order to "truly make a difference".

She exults at the thought of the difference her "movement" could have for employment.

"Think of all the university graduates with Bachelor's degrees who come back home for three, four years and can't get a job... think of the spinoffs," she said.

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