CHRISTIANA, Manchester — In its heyday the 53-year-old Christiana Potato Growers co-operative catered to the needs of 17,000 small farmers.
Today, the numbers have dwindled to about 4,000 "serious members" but the Co-op's leadership says the need to affordably increase production of its bread and butter crop Irish potato, as well as other produce, is as urgent as it has ever been.
Alvin Murray, General Manager of the Co-operative and a native of Christiana, told the Jamaica Observer Central that the co-op recognised that self-sufficiency in the production of potato seeds was critical for progress. Weaning themselves off imported seeds would not only cut costs, but give farmers more control over how and when crops are planted, he said.
"March is about the end of the potato season and then you won't see seeds again until October and those seeds are not ready for planting until December. (However) we would be planting additional crops in August to September if we can produce our own seeds," said Murray.
"We are utilising in this country one million kilogrammes of potatoes every month for the fresh market alone. If you put the processed market to it, it is more than twice the amount. That's a lot of foreign exchange used to import potatoes. We spend over J$250 million importing the seeds every year. We know that we need to have our own production. Unless we are able to influence production material we are really not going anywhere," he added.
Modern methods involving a leap from age-old practices to test-tube technology was obviously the way to go and to this end, the group set out to establish the Christiana Potato Growers Tissue Culture Lab, accommodated in an old fertiliser store room at the co-op's headquarters on Main Street, Christiana in North East Manchester.
Murray said a 2006 estimate of the cost of setting up the facility was $10 million.
"The Ministry (Agriculture and Fisheries)...didn't have $10 million. The Ministry gave us $2.5 million and say go and show us what you are doing, prove that it can work first before we give you anymore," he said.
Against the odds, the co-op completed the lab and soon discovered the beneficial multiplication effect of plant tissue culture.
As explained on the co-op's website: "As (the) plantlet [small cutting or offshoot] grows, new cuttings are repeatedly taken to increase the number of plantlets in culture. This number increases very quickly; for instance, a single potato plantlet can produce five plantlets in three weeks. Each of these five then produce five more in the next three weeks and so on...."
To better meet the needs of the farmers the plants are taken from the test tube to a "hardening off" facility adjoining the lab so that the farmers can be given the planting material in seed form or sprouts. The plants grown in the lab are eventually taken to Devon, another area of North East Manchester, to be grown in differing quantities in seven green houses covering 55,000 square feet and which are run by the co-op.
To increase efficiency, Murray said the group needs 39 more acres in Devon to grow Irish potato seeds alone. The lab, meanwhile, is set to be expanded by three times its size with solar panels and LED (light emitting diodes) lights through the assistance of the United Nation's Common Fund for Commodities and the European Union.
While he believes that protected agriculture is the way to go, Murray says open field farmers also stand to benefit from tissue culture.
"They (open field farmers) are now using hybrids, they are using better varieties (of potatoes) and even some of the green house varieties," he said.
Other than Irish potato, the co-op also uses test tube technology to develop sweet potato and ginger, as well as varieties of yam, strawberries, anthurium and carnation. Exploring different crops will ensure that farmers always have a crop going, said Murray. It also allows them to spread their risk.
Graduates and students from educational institutions such as the College of Agriculture Science and Education (CASE) and representatives of local and overseas partner agencies are working with the co-operative in the initiative as a means of retooling agriculture.
The co-operative also serves farmers in Kellits in Clarendon, New Market in St Elizabeth, Runaway Bay in St Ann and Alligator Pond in south Manchester. Farmers in Guys Hill, St Catherine, have also expressed an interest in getting planting material from the Christiana-based co-op, Murray said.