Labour shortage impacting agriculture, says minister
CHARLES... some farmers are now importing labour from outside their parishes

Governments have long touted agriculture as one of the key drivers of Jamaica's economic growth, but there is one problem — the sector isn't being taken seriously by some stakeholders, as evidenced by an acute shortage of reliable labour, according to Pearnel Charles Jr.

"So you may have somebody come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday [and] after dem mek a dollar dem gone, and when the money done, dem come back a real ting," Charles, the minister of agriculture and fisheries, bemoaned at last week's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.

The shortage of labour, he said, has resulted in farm owners importing workers from other parishes.

"So we have farmers in St Mary who have expressed difficulty to the point where they have to be importing people from Hanover and Trelawny; farmers in Clarendon have to be importing [from] outside of their area," Charles said.

He explained that one of the strategies the Government will be employing to address this lacklustre attitude towards farming is through education and presenting agriculture, particularly to the youth, in a more attractive way.

"Education [is] something that's not really seen as critical, but it's so critical in redefining how these youngsters think about farming. So when I talk to youngsters, I don't even mention farming, I say come and be agricultural engineers and agricultural scientists and agronomists and they connect to that," he said.

This knowledge, he said, can be imparted through the ministry's new 'Grow Smart, Eat Smart' campaign, which he described as the "most exciting, energetic, agriculture education programme" that seeks to drive resilience in the agriculture sector and increase production and consumption of local produce.

The campaign is intended to promote greater efficiency of the sector by, among other things, providing financing, technical training, and support for farmers, especially the youth, to take up farming as a viable business option; providing more leases for idle agriculture lands and promoting linkages and partnerships.

"As part of the Grow Smart, Eat Smart programme, we integrate training and very deliberate approaches to ensure that we can satisfy the labour needs," the agriculture minister said.

He cited coffee farming as one area where "we cannot get the young farmers to be involved and to stay involved", noting that the problem is that efforts are being made to change their mindset after they have already become adults and have decided that farming is not something they would like to pursue.

"So we are developing programmes to look on all segments of education formal and informal and to develop the strategic partnerships across the entire network that is going to help us to introduce, in a palatable way, to early childhood; primary, secondary, tertiary [institutions]; churches; communities the concept of Grow Smart, Eat Smart," he said.

BY ALECIA SMITH Senior staff reporter smitha@jamaicaobserver.com

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