'Agri at Heart' to 'Agri-Smart'

'Agri at Heart' to 'Agri-Smart'

Changing Agricultural Perspectives

RONALD BLAKE

Sunday, April 05, 2020

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Agriculture is an important and sustainable contributor to Jamaica's economic development. Its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 was 7.2 per cent. In the same year the sector was identified as the second-largest employer of labour, employing 15.1 per cent of the labour force (Economic and Social Survey Jamaica by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, 2018). Now more than ever, the resilience, reliability, and sustenance of the sector needs to be promulgated in times of global crisis.

The Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), through its Agricultural Business Innovation System (ABIS), reports that our registered farmer population is 214,625 individuals. In fact, three out of every four farmers registered since 2016 is a youth farmer. Further, the average age of the farmer population in Jamaica is at an all-time low of 48.7 years, one of the lowest in the world.

It is, therefore, not surprising that agricultural education has been experiencing a boost. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has reported that there is a steady increase in the number of students sitting the agricultural science examination at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level over the last three years. Notably, CSEC agricultural science has been enjoying the best pass rate of all subjects over the same period. Based on the Caribbean Examination Council's online statistics, the year 2019 saw the subject achieving a pass rate of 97.9 per cent.

This is very positive for agricultural education and is best indicated by the significant increase in the enrolment of students in the agricultural faculty at the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), as well as other tertiary institutions offering agricultural and other related programmes. This has also led to an increase in the demand for financial assistance. As a result, the Jamaica 4-H Clubs has bolstered its capacity to provide support for agricultural education at the tertiary, vocational, and secondary levels over the last three years.

The aforementioned are direct consequences of strategies employed by the Jamaica 4-H Clubs over its 80 years of existence, an achievement we are proud to share as we celebrate this significant milestone. Over the 2017 to 2019 period, 807 scholarships and bursaries were awarded as a strategic intervention towards creating a more educated farmer population.

Additionally, the organisation and its Youth in Agriculture Programme partners have been strategically implementing projects and activities that are supportive of training youth in agriculture to face challenges of climate change and low productivity. The Rural Youth Economic Empowerment Programme (RYEEP) is one such initiative which has added over 100 “Agri-Smart” Farmers to the sector each year. In addition, the National School Garden Programme is an important cradle for the stimulation of our youth into farming as well as toward the appreciation of the importance of food security. These gardens must also be credited for its contribution to school feeding, the almost perfect scores we have been seeing in the agricultural science CSEC examinations, and their positioning as science laboratories in our pre-secondary schools.

These initiatives have had a positive impact on the sector, key among them are:

* a younger farmer population;

* the growing participation of women in the sector, both in farming as well as agro-education;

* youth-owned farms, which are more likely to embrace and involve the use of technology;

* exploratory agricultural activities in food diversification; and

* professional cross-over being evident in the growing number of non-agriculture tertiary graduates and corporate professionals who are now engaging in lucrative agricultural enterprises.

Despite these positive trends and varied interventions, the sector struggles with low productivity. It is important that youth involvement in agriculture be seen as the answer to some of the challenges we face. If our young people are to enter the sector in the numbers that we require for optimal effect, we must help them overcome these hurdles. These were carefully identified during an islandwide consultation with youth to inform the formulation of the National Youth in Agriculture Policy. These challenges include:

1) limited access to attractive credit

2) low application of technology

3) extremes associated with climate change

4) high cost of production inputs

5) limited access to arable land

6) limited use of marketing intelligence

The Jamaica 4-H Clubs has recognised the need for a necessary transition among farmers to tackle the challenges of the present times. Our approach can no longer be sentimental, but rather strategic and purposeful. The importance of this sector to the survival of our people must be emphasised now more than ever. While not promoting the over-emphasis of one sector over another, the agricultural sector must be lauded as one that lends itself to broad-based participation due to its relatively low barrier to entry. The Jamaica 4-H Clubs, in response, is promoting the concept of the Agri-Smart Farmer as a strategy to promote productivity and overcome the maladies of the sector.

The Agri-Smart Farmer is conceptualised as one who is:

1. cognisant of the threats affecting the agricultural sector

2. ready to embrace innovation and new technologies

3. open to explore the concept of food diversification

4. appropriately equipped to operate a viable agri-business

5. trained and ready to co-exist with climate change

The way forward

The challenge that we must embrace as leaders, facilitators, and policymakers in Jamaica's agricultural development is to build the capacities of young people — male and female — and to equip them to address the emerging requirements of an attractive agricultural economy that offers prospects for viable incomes and good quality of life. In order to make agriculture attractive to young people we must invest in education at all levels, support agricultural innovation, build strong market infrastructure, and improve the business environment in ways that will raise incomes and expand the agricultural value chain that will redound to the benefit of the Jamaican people. This will only be done through a cadre of youth who have transitioned from the agricultural approaches of the past to the new productive solutions for the present and future.

As the Jamaica 4-H Clubs celebrates 80 years of service to Jamaica its commitment remains resolute. We will continue to be game-changers in the drive to increase the involvement of youth who are “Agri at Heart” but, most importantly, equipped with the knowledge and skills to be Agri-Smart.

Dr Ronald Blake is executive director of Jamaica 4-H Clubs.


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