WATCH: ‘Brace for food price increases this Christmas’
ST ELIZABETH, Jamaica – Farmers in the bread basket parish of St Elizabeth and neighbouring Manchester are urging Jamaicans to set aside a few extra dollars for the fast-approaching Christmas season.
Despite a recent report from the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) that the availability of popular agricultural commodities is expected to drive down the prices of certain crops, farmers say consumers should expect to spend more on food items come next month.
In the last month, the island has experienced an increase in rainfall resulting in a much-needed ease for farmers who were being affected by the prolonged drought, one of the worst in history. However, according to farmers interviewed by Observer Online in New Forest, at the border of St Elizabeth and Manchester, improved irrigation systems had alleviated the impact of the dry spell on growers in the area, therefore the increased rainfall is not an indication that crop prices are to be drastically reduced come Christmas.
In fact, the farmers said consumers could be faced with the opposite this Yuletide season.
“The drought gave us hardship, but with the help of the irrigation water, we never really endured total or severe drought. The irrigation water is a little costly but it saved us somewhat. But, normally in a drought the pricing go up and the yielding go down,” said Naython Moss-Strong, who has been farming for the past four years.
“The recent rains have given us a break in terms of using a lot of the irrigation water so it has turned over the season a bit. It’s a bit more luscious, we’re getting a bit more yielding but I would still advise consumers to brace for an increase in the price of farm produce.”
When quizzed as to the reason why, especially since the drought hadn’t had an adverse effect on the farmers in the parish, Moss-Strong told Observer Online that they have been battling pests and diseases that have been “eating down” their crops.
“We have a lot of pests and diseases in the area. We have the beet armyworm which was known and right now we’re having a ‘root-rat’ infestation with the escallion and thyme. That has affected us severely because sometimes even 50 per cent of your crop is lost,” he said.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s website, Spodoptera exigua, also known as the beet armyworm, is a destructive pest of onion and scallion in Jamaica. It went on to state that since the 1990s, agricultural production in St Elizabeth has suffered from several major outbreaks of the beet armyworm which resulted in a loss in excess of $140 million from 2009 to 2012. The Agriculture Ministry said despite the best efforts of the authorities, the parish still struggles with beet armyworm infestation.
As a result, Moss-Strong said escallion and thyme, which are currently priced at $300 and $800 per pound respectively, are expected to increase over the next month. Unable to say definitively how much more consumers would be expected to shell out, Moss-Strong simply replied, “brace for an increase.”
Concurring with his colleague, a farmer who identified himself only as ‘Uncle’ told Observer Online that although most farmers in St Elizabeth produce escallion and thyme, which on the surface would mean lower prices at the market, the struggle with pests continue to drive up costs.
“We know definitely you’re gonna pay more for scallion because scallion short bad. Scallion a $200/300 inna di bed now so it more a market and mi sure scallion nah come back dung,” he said. “The worm (beet armyworm) just start back again and if dat chip in the right way, we weep and mourn. It eat it right down. We have to buy pesticides to help fight the worm and that expensive so you find say we have to put that into the price of the crop as well,” he said, adding “Farming (products) nah go cheap for Christmas so unu prepare for it.”
Another farmer who identified himself only as ‘Mr Hamilton’ shared that in addition to escallion and thyme, tomato and sweet pepper will also see an uptick in prices come December.
Mr Hamilton said perhaps only cucumbers may be on the cheaper side this season, selling for $30/$40 per pound. He also shared that with the turnover time on tomatoes being 10 to 12 weeks, consumers may not see a decrease in the price of that crop until well into 2024.
“Tomato right now nah ready again till January so that will be scarce for the Christmas and from it scarce it ago be expensive,” he said. “Scallion and thyme same way ago short and expensive because of the pest, sweet pepper, watermelon. Prepare for it is all I can say.”
Based on the information received from farmers in St Elizabeth, it may be gearing up to be a pricey Christmas for consumers. Still, in a release last week, RADA shared that reprieve is near as a price reduction is expected for crops such as lettuce, pak choi and cabbage.
Regarding yam, which currently retails for up to $300 per pound, RADA’s Post-Harvest Specialist and current Acting Production and Marketing Manager, Dwight Forrester said the high-producing parishes of Trelawny, Manchester and Clarendon are indicating that consumers can expect a slight decrease in prices, as “availability is increasing as time goes by.”