SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — In the marshlands and along the waterways of Braes River in North East St Elizabeth, some small farmers are making a good living producing dasheen for the domestic and export market.
Keith Facey, who has been planting it for more than eight years, told the Jamaica Observer Central that dasheen has proven to be a "good crop" which he regrets not having taken on many years ago.
Facey currently plants two acres of dasheen, but says he intends to go up to three acres eventually.
He supplies vendors for the local market and on occasions, exporters. Facey said that at any given time, his output can range between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds.
Another, small farmer Omar Jennings, who has been planting dasheen for four years said the tuber can provide a steady income especially if "you plant plenty". Like Facey, he supplies the local market and at times exporters.
There has been increased interest in dasheen in Braes River and the wider northern St Elizabeth following a festival promoting tasty by-products three weeks ago.
Although the price fluctuates, farmers in Braes River say they currently earn up to $70 per pound for dasheen.
Exporters too, appear to be upbeat. In a telephone interview Conrad Bowen who has shipped dasheen to Miami and New York confirmed that there is a steady demand for the product overseas. Bowen says there is also growing interest in the product in the Canadian market.
Preliminary data provided by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica indicate that last year 914,876 kilogrammes of dasheen was exported to the US, UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Cayman Islands.
According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica's Economic & Social Survey figures up to 2011, dasheen production across Jamaica has been steadily increasing, up from 10,831 tonnes in 2007 to 18,493 tonnes in 2011.
Curiously, Ministry of Agriculture figures show that in St Elizabeth — always among the leading producers of dasheen — production was lower in 2011 and 2012 compared to 2010. According to those figures St Elizabeth produced 3595.4 tonnes in 2010, 3038.8 tonnes in 2011 and 2887.6 tonnes in 2012.
Despite their mostly optimistic outlook, farmers and exporters alike, lament a number of challenges.
For Facey, the difficulties range from glut to high production costs.
He cited plant disease, the cost of chemicals (for crop spraying) and labour costs as serious difficulties.
Facey said he has even been the victim of theft since a vendor took some goods on consignment and disappeared without compensating him.
Jennings cited the cost of fertiliser as his main problem. He explains that dasheen requires fertiliser "but to where fertiliser gone to, if it (the price) did drop mi would a plant more dasheen."
Bowen's issues with the industry include the inconsistency of supply and demand.
"We not consistent sometimes we have it and a next time its not there," he said.
Other problems include increases in the cost of air freight and recent rule changes by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the handling of the product, which he said had caused him to lose money.
There is seeming consensus that government intervention could help to improve prospects for the dasheen sub- sector. Facey wants subsidies which he hopes would make inputs such as fertiliser and chemicals cheaper. Both he and Bowen agreed that production costs are too high. They believe a storage area provided by government would assist the export side of the business since some exporters are without such a facility.
Challenges notwithstanding, Facey and Bowen say they are committed to dasheen production for the long term.
An expectation for them and fellow dasheen farmers in Braes River and the wider northern St Elizabeth is that proactive promotion such as was provided by the recent festival will help to drive demand.