Demand for callaloo rises, vendors recap wins and losses

As the cost of ground produce and cash crops soared in markets across St Catherine during the recent COVID-19 lockdown, one item became a main feature on the plates of many — callaloo.

The leafy, green vegetable went for $100 per bundle, the usual price, unlike other crops like cabbage or carrots which were being sold way above their usual price point over the two-week period.

But thanks to local farmers, there was a cheap and steady supply of callaloo, especially in the parish’s most populated town centres — Spanish Town and Portmore.

Hurdley Rowe, a callaloo farmer in Spanish Town, was a major supplier in these areas. From a five-acre plot of callaloo, Rowe supplied his usual factory clients, as well as vendors who bought at $20 per pound.

During a visit to his farm on Friday, Rowe told the Jamaica Observer why, unlike other farmers who capitalised on little or no competition from outside suppliers who remained largely absent during the lockdown, he decided to keep his prices the same.

“Is it a feed everybody in a Jamaica yah now. That’s why I don’t push the price on callaloo, because I know that is what poor people eat. All when di price on things like cabbage gone up, I keep the price on callaloo low so that poor people can buy it,” said Rowe.

He explained that during the lockdown, business had increased so much that he eventually had to start rationing the crop among buyers.

“Last week two factories wanted to buy two truckload and mi haffi give them one truck each,” he said.

This was so that vendors who sell in nearby town centres like Portmore could have their share, Rowe explained, and why too, he has stuck to planting callaloo over his 30 years in the business.

“People have to eat so I never stop working. I am always producing food, that is why I stick with callaloo over the years. If other farmers do the same, then we will have food,” said Rowe.

Damion Dennis was one vendor who benefited from Rowe’s farm. Dennis, who sells callaloo at Portmore Mall, told the Sunday Observer that business had been good for him in spite of the limited shopping days. Dennis, who usually gets his supplies from farmers outside the parish, said he had to make some adjustments.

“Food deh here enuh, but mi couldn’t get to it during the lockdown because di farmers couldn’t come in a town, so mi haffi start go to farmers in a St Catherine. You have a lot a callaloo farms nearby,” said Dennis.

“Portmore people couldn’t go in a town so them haffi depend pon we,” he continued, explaining that although he lost some business with the closure of schools and most restaurants, he had good business selling callaloo at his usual spot.

“Mi never sell so much greens [callaloo] since mi a sell greens over six years now. The people buy up the callaloo. One day last week, mi mek all three trip to the farm to how fast the people buy up the greens,” said Dennis.

The experience of keeping his business afloat in uncharted waters has allowed Dennis to make connections with local farmers, and he has since expanded into selling other produce apart from callaloo.

“Mi start link with some other farmer from di other day and now mi start sell purple cabbage too and zucchini, things mi never usually sell,” he said.

Jennifer Forrest, a fruit vendor also at Portmore Mall, said: “Business wasn’t bad at all. Usually mi sell foodstuff, [ground produce] too, but mi couldn’t go Coronation Market where I normally get my stuff. One morning mi try it and them tek mi off di bus and turn mi back.”

The 60-year-old woman said she had to rely on local supplies, including her very own fruit trees at home.

“Mi buy a box a banana this morning for $3,000 and mi bring di mangoes from home. Now that everything free up again, I can go to the market and get jackfruit and plum,” said Forrester, who has been vending for over 13 years.

“This is what mi use and raise five boy and I still come out, because I have two grandchildren at home.

“But otherwise, I don’t worry about anything, especially at my age. I just work with the time,” she said.

Meanwhile, vendors from outside St Catherine, for example in the neighbouring parish of Clarendon, had a somewhat different experience. As the borders to Jamaica’s second most populated area reopened on Friday, the negative impact of the closure became clear.

Vendors returning to the Old Harbour market told the Sunday Observer that business came to halt for them during the weeks.

“Today is my first time back selling in Old Harbour since the lockdown. Mi haffi sell to the higgler them because mi couldn’t come in a town,” said Michael Smith, a farmer and vendor from Clarendon.

Karene Powell, a vendor from Manchester, said she had not sold anything in two weeks. “Today is my first day back. Things [business] very slow but I expect that because a lot of people are out of a job.

”Things are very expensive in the farm because of the drought in Manchester, and the customers them a complain,” she added. “I was looking forward for the curfew to end but I understand that it was for our best.”

Another vendor who has also suffered losses said she bought one bag of Scotch bonnet peppers for $12,000 and had to take home half. “Because the restaurants them lock, the hot pepper them nah sell. Last week I spent $12,000 and mi haffi carry home the other half because them nah sell. Mi haffi just call that a loss,” said the woman.

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