Farming hit by COVID-19

Farming hit by COVID-19

Small farmers buckle under the impact of COVID-19

BY KELLARAY MILES
Business reporter
milesk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, March 29, 2020

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As the impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is felt across the country, small farmers — especially those who supply produce to the now-dormant tourism sector — are among those most affected.

With the temporary closure of hotels, many of these farmers now have no market for their goods and are suffering losses.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer last Friday, Tarique Bennett-Cobbla, owner and operator of Nuegen Farming, which specialises in iceberg and romaine lettuce, said that since the onslaught of the virus, production has pretty much halted.

“I plant the lettuce in stages. Normally, I would be cutting every week but since the virus, everything has been paused,” he shared.

Noting that while he plants other crops such as sweet peppers, Scotch bonnet peppers, cabbage, and kale, his main crop is lettuce, 95 per cent of which he sells to hotels in Negril, Westmoreland — among them Couples, Hedonism and Beaches resorts — two to three times per week.

“It's really rough. I have a lot of spoilage, low prices. I tried going to the Coronation Market (in Kingston) but since other hotel suppliers are doing the same thing you find that the price of the produce now is really, really bad, as everyone is trying to get rid of excess in order not to lose everything,” he said. “In terms of the excess, majority spoil; some I give away and the rest I sell to local housewives.”

According to Bennett-Cobbla, he is currently losing approximately 2,000 pounds of iceberg lettuce and between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of romaine lettuce.

“Since this year I have to be selling the iceberg lettuce at $120 per lb and romaine $170 per lb, down from the $500 to $600 per lb that it was being sold for in most of the latter parts of last year,” he said.

The absence of a market has resulted in Bennett-Cobbla suspending planting, forcing him to now turn to the money he had set aside for a rainy day. But he is worried as to how long he will be able to rely on his savings.

“My hope is for this virus to just leave so that things can just come back to normal, so that tourists can return to the country and we can get on with our lives,” a frustrated Bennett-Cobbla said. “Currently, I am not producing as I have to scale down; my farm employs eight to 10 people and they depend on the farm to feed their families.”

Another farmer, Paul Gordon, who also supplies a variety of other goods – including melons and cantaloupes – to hotels, said it has been a rough period for him, too.

“Since the hotels closed down, everything have to close down because nothing not selling. Right now me just haffi a sit back and look what is going on 'cause we can't do nothing right now. I'm not planting now. We just have to call it a day until we can start up back, but there is no planting in the meantime as it makes no sense,” he told Sunday Finance.

He said given the financial constraints he, too, had to make the decision to lay off workers until normality has resumed, stating that his losses were in the thousands of dollars weekly as he supplies 100 per cent of his goods to the tourism industry.

“Right now me a lose 'bout $500,000 a week. This can sometimes go down, depending on the amount of guests the hotels have, but right now is the peak season so I would be making that. But right now I'm sitting at home making nothing — so it's a big loss right now,” he said, while noting that he, too, has had to resort to using his savings in order to stay afloat.

“The goods I had, I try selling it back to some of the market people dem; others mi just fling weh because dem a spoil. Whatever does not get sold to the market people it will end up being thrown away,” he said.

Gordon said even though the magnitude of the loss is great, he is only requesting that Government, through the relevant agencies such as Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), assists farmers like himself in securing fertilisers and seeds so that they can resume production and contain losses when the time is right.

“We don't really want no money, just want the help to get production back up when time comes. So, if there is something RADA can come up with and try help back the farmers overall [to get back on their feet, this would be appreciated]. We all have to just hope that it may soon pass over and hope fi the best because it's just a worldwide thing, so we cannot blame the Government,” the St Elizabeth farmer said.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries JC Hutchinson, speaking in an interview on Radio Jamaica on Thursday, confirmed that small farmers were indeed losing massively as a result of the impact of the virus.

“Small farmers are suffering,” he said, noting that there is an oversupply of just about every type of produce at the moment as farmers struggle to find markets.

“What I'm talking about is thousands of pounds. At the end of March we are looking at roughly 9,000 tons of produce [not yet reaped] that is going to be in excess – in other words, what we figure that might not be sold,” he said.

Hutchinson said that the Government, through his ministry, is currently assessing the situation to see how best it can assist these farmers. He said that currently the ministry, along with RADA, is in dialogue with several agro-processors, supermarkets and wholesalers to see how best they can help to offload the excess produce from the farmers.


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