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Christmas trees from the breadbasket parish

Farmer opens eyes in area known for vegetables and spices

South/Central Bureau

Monday, November 30, 2020

SOUTHFIELD, St Elizabeth — All his life, Edward Richards has been fascinated by trees.

That's one reason he joined the State-run Forestry Department in 1977 as a 23-year-old, staying put for 43 years until March this year when he retired.

For 30 of those years, Richards has also planted and retailed ornamental trees for Christmas celebrations in a private capacity, as “a hobby”, but also, he says, to help “pay some bills”.

In the St Elizabeth farming community of Southfield, on the southern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where people are used to producing vegetables and spices, Richards has opened eyes to the possibilities for ornamental plants, commonly referred to as Christmas trees.

Over the last three years the St Ann native has planted an acre and a half of land in the ornamental cypress — native to Mexico and Central America which carry the botanical name cupressus lusitanica — within easy walking distance of his home in the Southfield Housing Scheme.

“This is a very different kind of agriculture for people around here,” Richards told the Jamaica Observer last Wednesday. “Sometimes people will stop to look, ask questions and take pictures.”

Richards and his assistant, Steve McLeod, were busy pruning and preparing trees ahead of the first deliveries for the Christmas season. This is only his second year of deliveries from Southfield. Previously, he relied on a much older farm at Kensington in St James. That operation is maintained by McLeod, who lives in St James.

He believes he is the only producer of Christmas trees in St Elizabeth and very possibly in western Jamaica.

Richards told the Observer that the cupressus lusitanica was first introduced to assist Jamaica's reforestation projects and soil conservation on steep slopes, such as the Blue Mountains. However, its commercial potential — as ornamental Christmas trees — was quickly recognised.

Most local producers, including the Forestry Department, are in the Blue Mountains. The tree grows best at above 2,000 feet above sea level and has a relatively high tolerance for drought, as well as heavy showers as has been experienced across Jamaica in recent months, Richards said.

“See how lush these trees look? They love the rain,” he said.

Richards explained that, traditionally, most of his orders come from householders, hoteliers, and business operators in western Jamaica “from Negril to Montego Bay” as well as Mandeville. This year, he has also had orders from Treasure Beach, a leading community tourism centre on the south coast.

He is wary of the challenge posed by COVID-19 and the pandemic's huge impact on tourism. But he also expects increased business from home owners, since “many people will be entertaining themselves at home this Christmas”.

This holiday season Richards has “a pick a tree promotion” with families being invited to visit Southfield to “pick a tree for Christmas”.

He is pricing his trees at $1,500 per foot — ranging in size from about four feet tall to 10-12 feet. He expects to reap about 150 trees for sale from Southfield this Christmas. All told, the Southfield farm has about 1,000 trees, Richards said.

Delivery services extend to “free installation” inside the home should the customer desire. “I feel good when we go inna di place and satisfy the customer; I love it,” said Richards.

“You have to understand, I do this mostly for the satisfaction I get from working with trees and satisfying the customer... to plant these trees and wait so long you don't make much of a profit...,” he said.

In a bid to increase profitability, Richards does intercropping with short-term cash crops through his rows of ornamental trees. Currently, he has scotch bonnet pepper, but he has also planted pumpkins and cauliflower — all of which have “a high tolerance for shade”.

Richards cautioned that Christmas tree farming, while having real potential for growth, requires “skill sets”, specialised knowledge and most of all “you have to love trees and taking care of trees... not everybody can do this”.

He is also urging the Government to incentivise local ornamental tree farming by stopping the issuing of import licences for Christmas trees. He describes the overseas product as “expensive” and often of lower quality than is produced locally.

“I grow trees, the Forestry Department grow some trees, as well as private people in the Blue Mountains. We can take care of the market easily... so why give licences to import Christmas trees? It's ridiculous,” Richards said.