Agriculture needs an integrated plan, says Jeremy Palmer

SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — A lifelong vegetable farmer, born, grown and still resident in south St Elizabeth, Jeremy Palmer knows more than a thing or two about farming and its challenges.

And, as ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) councillor for the farm-rich Pedro Plains Division, Palmer believes the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for Jamaicans to act to protect their food security.

Palmer feels the Jamaican Government should proactively set about technological advances for small farmers away from the machete, hoe and fork, as well as provide creative water management opportunities and farmer training to boost efficient production.

He believes the Government should become more directly involved in the marketing of farmers’ produce, thereby moving away from the “orthodoxies” promoted by the champions of free trade and globalised economic activity which have eroded national borders.

Palmer, a former mayor of Black River who decades ago served as parliamentary secretary for agriculture in the 1980s JLP Administration of Edward Seaga, says this carefully “integrated mix” of policy measures aimed at making the Jamaican small farmer more productive, competitive and protected is needed as a matter of urgency.

“What we have done with globalisation [is] we have literally thrown our farmers under the bus. We have not prepared them to meet the challenges of that competitive market with the things they grow,” Palmer told the Jamaica Observer last week.

Palmer said the onset of COVID-19, which in recent weeks has wrecked the tourist industry – a major market for local agricultural production — and undermined produce distribution, had graphically shown up agriculture’s vulnerabilities, leaving many farmers uncertain about the viability of their sector.

Last year Jamaica spent in excess of US$900 million for imported food — much of it destined for the multi-billion-dollar tourist industry.

Palmer believes that while Jamaicans and their leaders speak glibly about ‘eating what you grow’, a mantra which dates back to the 1970s, there hasn’t been enough attention to getting it done in a structured, programmed way.

In any drive to make agriculture more competitive, efficient and productive, Palmer says there is need for greater access to modern technology.

“There has to be a far more efficient way to plant, care for the crops, and reaping of those crops,” he said.

Twinned to “new thinking” and “new machinery” in agricultural production must be easier and greater availability of water, said Palmer.

While large irrigation projects would be ideal, Palmer said the reality was that such projects were not easily attainable in Jamaica’s current economic environment, especially since the rugged, hilly terrain in which many farmers operate makes the movement of piped water prohibitively expensive. That means continued reliance on the trucking of water “which would have to be subsidised”, he said.

A significant number, if not most, of the more than 200,000 Jamaican small farmers operate on steep hillsides, at 1,000 feet or more above sea level.

“It would be very costly to pipe water to them any time soon,” said Palmer.

“We are going to have to equip the National Irrigation Commission to move water more efficiently to farmers [using subsidised trucking] where you don’t have an irrigation system,” he said.

Already, said Palmer, many small farmers have adopted drip irrigation as an essential part of their operation. The task for Government and its agricultural officers should be to universalise such practices among farmers, while providing water management training.

He added that tax breaks aimed at making farm inputs such as seeds, fertiliser and insecticides cheaper should go hand in hand with improved technology and water management.

“We have to look at what fiscal space we have and see how we can give the farmers a tax break so production can be more efficient,” he said.

He, meanwhile, rejects any suggestion that government shouldn’t be involved in subsidising agriculture, arguing that while a private sector-led free market is often “trumpeted” on the global stage, some of the leading, rich, industrialised members of the World Trade Organization — which oversees the global free trade regime — subsidise their own farmers.

In addition, he argued that proper water management should involve careful planning to deal with seasonal climatic conditions such as droughts and floods.

He said that while climate change was a challenging reality, it has always been the case that the last part of any year and the first few months of “any given year” are usually dry. Likewise, he said, Jamaicans are familiar with the traditional wet months such as May, June, September and October.

Rather than blaming climate change, policy leaders and farm practitioners should be practising “climate smart agriculture” by planning and executing sensibly, he said.

“So drought should not be a problem for our productive process anymore…at this stage we shouldn’t be telling people that production has fallen off because we had severe drought. We should have been managing water in such a way that those months of the year we would be prepared for it [drought]…So that’s not an argument, it’s an excuse,” said Palmer.

“At the same time, we know that we’re going to have excessive rain at a particular time of the year so we should be preparing for production to go on despite excessive rainfall…,” he said.

Beyond actual farm production, Palmer said the Jamaican Government should look to take an active role, or as he put it “make a bold intervention”, in marketing agricultural products.

He advocates a return to the Agricultural Marketing Corporation model of five decades ago, which saw the Government buying and stockpiling farm products and selling to processors and retailers.

Allied to such a strategy should be a deliberate effort to encourage small processors by providing incentives to facilitate juice and flavour extraction aimed at improving nutrition — replacing the sugar-based, bag juice bias of children and young people.

“That is a whole integrated process that has to be forged — from farm gate to finished product — that can provide nutrition in schools and benefit the farmers…,” he said. Such integration would help to reduce the destabilising incidence of glut followed by scarcity which has long haunted Jamaican agriculture.

Palmer said, too, that deeper government involvement at the marketing end of agriculture would weaken the hand of the middleman — the higgler or vendor — whom, he claims, is currently holding farmers “hostage”.

“It is that middleman who makes the money out of farming. They are able to manipulate the market to their advantage at all times because when the farmers’ crops come in they need to get it off their hands. The higgler sets the agenda…carries [only] enough to the marketplace to keep prices at a certain level…,” said Palmer.

“We have situations where a farmer may be selling tomatoes in his field at $30 per pound, but the hotel is buying at $150 from the middleman. For that hotelier it is better and cheaper to import,” said Palmer.

“The Government needs to return to a marketing design that assists the farmer,” he insisted.

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