BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor — Special Assignment email@example.com
A group of small farmers from Johnson Mountain and Rowlands Field in Eastern St Thomas are convinced they can help Jamaica produce itself out of debt if only they are granted access to more Government lands for farming under the newly implemented agro-park programme.
An agro-park is an agricultural development area designed to add value to agricultural products by processing by-products into useable or edible forms, or by providing the link between the farm and the market. The programme will facilitate the leasing of 8,000 acres of underutilised Government lands across the country to private individuals for agricultural purposes.
In St Thomas, some 60 men and women are allowed to farm various cash crops on individual plots, in addition to the designated vegetables of onions, tomatoes and ginger, which will be marketed through the agro-park.
But according to the St Thomas farmers, the approximately 160 acres in the Plantain Garden River area which have so far been identified for their use is far from adequate given the number of unemployed persons in the parish who are willing to farm.
"If we get the amount of land we need and can get tractor fi come in an plough it up fi wi, ah tell you we could produce Jamaica out of the crisis," said farmer Cecil Reynolds.
Earlier this year, Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke said the development of agro-parks across Jamaica is the critical plank in the country's food security plans. He said that the country's food import bill was unacceptably high, and vowed to use agro-parks to put a US$47-million dent in the deficit by 2015.
But the group of farmers, who were busy at work when the Jamaica Observer North East visited last Thursday, argued that hundreds of unemployed persons who are eager to become a part of the programme have not been able to do so as enough lands have not even been made available.
According to them, many of the current participants are yet to access the full five acres they were promised would be allocated.
"Every day, people from all walks of life coming to ask us if dem can't be a part of the programme because they have nowhere to farm, and so we want more opportunity for others," said Alfred Rowe.
The farmers said they would need at least an additional 250 acres of the adjoining lands, now occupied with cane, to be made available to them.
"People want to farm, but the little land wey some ah wi have is in hilly areas, and so this is the first time poor people ah have access to dem kind ah prime farm land that all tractor can come in come plough," said Wilton Fields.
According to the farmers, the land, which is now leased to a large cane farmer, is said to have the third richest soil type in the world.
They said more persons are interested in farming cash crops as opposed to working in sugar cane where the majority of the jobs are seasonal.
"Over here all the people do is work on the sugar estate and when crop time done dem haffi sit down again fi how much months before dem get work again," said Leaheim Patterson.
Fields, on the other hand, argued further that: "We need fi move away from cane because although we nah fight nuhbody, cane means poverty and so we want an opportunity for more people fi get involve inna dis and watch how wi can produce Jamaica outta debt."
An additional allotment of lands, the farmers added, would enable the scores of unemployed persons, including youth on the streets, to gain meaningful employment.
"We have a lot of unemployed youth who want to come into farming, but they don't have any lands to farm," Rowe said.
The farmers said they were initially told that 500 acres of the former banana lands were to be allocated to them, but they have heard no further word on the matter.
Meanwhile, the farmers say they want to be able to identify reliable markets for their produce, as while there is a guaranteed market for the onions, tomatoes and ginger grown under the agro-park programme, they have to identify their own markets for the cash crops they produce — which currently include pepper, okra, carrot, tomato, lettuce, cantaloupe, melon, calaloo, among others.
They are also calling on the Government to assist them in acquiring transportation to get their produce out of the field.
"Wi see Government have all kind ah older vehicle park up and dem coulda help wi fi get some ah dem fi help wi out on di farm," Fields said.
The farmers say they are committed to farming and this is evident by the fact that some of them journey seven miles on foot to get to the farm every day.
"When wi nuh have di money to take a taxi people walk from way ah Johnson Mountain and Rowlands field to come here every day," one farmer said.
As for praedial larceny, the farmers say they have not been faced with that challenge as they watch each other's backs.
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