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How COVID-19 ravaged the farm sector


This is part of a series by Jamaica Observer reporters and editors looking at the impact of the novel coronavirus of various sectors of the economy since the first case was reported locally on March 10, 2020. See Entertainment and Business sections for the effect of the virus on those sectors.

 

MANDEVILLE, Manchester — In early April last year, Ryan Forrest of Great Bay, southern St Elizabeth, looked a sad picture as he reflected on the “total loss” of half an acre of honeydew melons.

He was giving away huge quantities of the vine fruit “to feed animals” and “make juices” because there was no market, he said.

“Better mi give it away than mek it spoil, nobody want it to buy,” Forrest told the Jamaica Observer.

Like many other farmers across Jamaica, Forrest was hit hard by the closure of hotels as tourism came to a halt with the onset of the novel coronavirus.

Honeydew was a special case since it was produced almost exclusively for the tourist industry — most Jamaicans having not developed a taste for that strain of melon.

But eleven months ago prices had also dropped through the floor for more traditional crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and other leafy vegetables, after hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, schools, and the entertainment sector shut down.

Not just field crops, but other agricultural subsectors, such as poultry, suffered badly with many farmers choosing to pause.

“It’s been wide ranging and cross cutting,” said Agriculture Minister Floyd Green on the weekend, in relation to the COVID-19-induced ravages of agriculture.

Optimism rebounded towards the middle of last year as some hotels reopened and there developed a sense that the tourism industry would gradually recover. Boosted by a $240-million support programme from government, farmers increased production.

Indeed, Green noted that after a six per cent decline in farm production in April to June as a result of the COVID-19 impact, there was growth in the third quarter of 2020.

However, as so often happens, the weather intervened. Flood rains in late 2020 devastated agriculture, reviving the age-old cycle of glut and scarcity, price boom and bust.

Those who managed to salvage part of their crops as the rains eased, profited from prices going through the roof.

Omoy Simpson of Bull Savannah recalled that as Christmas approached, farmers were getting close to $400 per pound for ‘plumy’ tomatoes and higher prices yet for the more refined ‘table’ product.

Responding to those prices, farmers — not just in traditional areas such as St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon and St Ann — took on large-scale tomato planting.

Good farming weather late last year and into January triggered a bumper crop. “Is a long time I don’t see salad (tomatoes) bear so much,” said a chuckling Simpson as he spoke to the Observer by telephone on Saturday.

That happened even as tourism entered another major slump with tightened anti-COVID-19 measures drying up Jamaica’s leading tourism source markets such as Canada, United States and Britain.

Additionally, the alarming, recent surge in local COVID-19 cases and resulting drastic reductions in face-to-face school, as well as extended curfew hours, and stricter stay-at-home orders, lowered demand for farm products.

Prices plummeted as a result of that confluence of circumstances. Simpson said that up to last week, farmers were selling ‘plumy’ tomatoes in the field to private vendors for as low as $10 to $15 per pound. It was being retailed in markets for $30, $40 and $50 per pound.

“When you pick a hundred pounds of tomatoes and get $1,000, that can’t even pay the picker, so most of the crop is spoiling in the field,” complained Cetany Holness, councillor (Jamaica Labour Party – JLP) Junction Division.

Cucumbers, among other crops, have also had significant price slumps. Fortunately, many farmers hedge their bets by planting several crops. That paid off for Simpson and others who have had good prices for spices such as scallion and thyme, even as vegetables plummeted.

To ease the situation, the Government, through its Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), has been purchasing tens of thousands of pounds of excess vegetables for redistribution across the country. While arguing that the quantities bought by the State have been relatively insignificant, farmers in St Elizabeth and Manchester have reported getting $30 per pound for ‘plumy’ and up to $40 from RADA for ‘table’ tomatoes.

Green says RADA’s intervention has helped to stabilise prices.

But Holness and others point to the decades-old, often-repeated need for large-scale cold storage and agro-processing facilities to ease the cycle of boom and bust. “Is full time for that to happen,” said Holness.

Green acknowledges that, saying tomato and other vegetable farmers have been badly let down. He wants more along the lines of an agro-processing plant operated by GraceKennedy at Hounslow in his constituency of St Elizabeth South Western. That plant buys local produce to manufacture scallion and pepper mash, targeting local and export markets.

“We want to see more of our agro-producers getting more innovative and creative… we want to encourage the private sector to move in this direction for the production of juices, condiments and spices,” Green said.

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