St Elizabeth farms hit by COVID-19 but…

FLAGAMAN, St Elizabeth — As expected, market demand for agricultural produce, including vegetables and fruit, is declining rapidly in southern St Elizabeth as the COVID-19 pandemic takes a grip.

In the case of honeydew melon — which for some reason is not favoured by many Jamaicans — the market has dried up completely following the sudden collapse of the tourism industry.

However, when the Jamaica Observer took a quick tour on Wednesday, farmers were quick to dispel “false” information about a glut in watermelon.

They voiced extreme annoyance at a television news report suggesting that the popular fruit was in such abundance, it was being fed to hogs.

“No melon no dung yah a feed no hog, if anything we don’t have enough to meet demand,” said Lower Flagaman farmer John Davis, one of those recovering after being wiped out by a huge fire last August.

Davis and fellow melon farmer Gregory Campbell, also of Flagaman, explained that while farmers were “in trouble” falsehoods such as had been aired about watermelon could distort the market, though they conceded that some people found it funny.

“When the vendor comes to us and buy (watermelon) at the correct market price which is about $70, $80 per pound… you might find that they go to market and people don’t want to buy it because dem hear on TV say it so plentiful, we have it a feed hog,” said a vexed Campbell.

He noted, however, that the price for watermelon would have actually been higher had it not been for COVID-19, which has devastated Jamaica’s multi-billion tourist industry.

Campbell said the media and others needed to recognise that the peak of Jamaica’s melon crop is in the summer months of June, July and August.

Come that time, plentiful watermelons, plus the presence of large quantities of other fruit such as mango and pineapple would usually send prices tumbling.

“During the fall and winter (months) yu not going to find so much watermelon…It (price) would have reached $100, $110 per pound if the hotels had not closed,” he said.

Campbell pointed to two piles of watermelon in his garage which he had “saved” for a “bredrin” while fending off other vendors.

He had sold over 3,000 pounds of watermelon on Wednesday morning before the news team arrived and over 20,000 pounds over previous days, he said.

However, farmers related calamitous experiences with the honeydew melon, favoured by the hotel industry but largely ignored by Jamaicans for reasons that are not clear.

Ryan Forrest of Great Bay showed the Sunday Observer team a half acre of honeydew melons now ripe and ready for market, which he was “giving away to feed animals” and “make juices”.

Cucumber, from a neighbouring field, was also being given away for the same purposes, all because of the collapse of tourism, said Forrest.

“Better mi give it away than mek it spoil, nobody want it to buy,” said Forrest, who pointed out that he also needed the land to replant.

He had been hit particularly hard by the losses in honeydew since he would have been able to sell 15,000 to 20,000 pounds over a three-week period at about $100 -$130 per pound in normal times.

Fortunately for Forrest, he had hedged his bets by also planting traditional watermelon and had gained significant returns from that crop, he said.

At Flagaman, a gloomy Davis pointed to a quarter acre of honeydew melons, which will be ready for reaping in two weeks.

“I don’t know what a going to do with that now,” he said, gesturing towards the honey dew patch.

However, he too had hedged his bets by investing substantially in traditional watermelons, due in three weeks.

Cucumbers and honeydew melons apart, farmers in south St Elizabeth identified tomatoes, lettuce and other leafy vegetables among crops which had suffered a huge slump in demand following the temporary closure of tourism.

Reduced market hours and a significant cutback in market shopping because of public fear of the novel coronavirus were also factors, farmers said.

The Jamaica Government has sought to ease pressure on farmers by announcing an injection of $240 million available to buy excess produce from farmers.

Minister without portfolio in the agriculture ministry, JC Hutchinson, said the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) will be working closely with farmers and efforts will be made to identify and utilise cold storage facilities.

Agro-processors were also expected to increase their use of local produce for value-added products including mash and juices, the Government said.

During Wednesday’s tour by the Sunday Observer team, Clarence Holnes (spelling correct) of Bull Savannah said he was now getting $20 per pound for his ‘plummy’ tomato from vendors compared to $40-$50 per pound a month ago.

Scallion sales had also dropped, he said. “A person who use to buy three, four hundred pounds can only buy 50 pounds now,” said Holnes. He was still able to demand $150 per pound for scallion in the field, he said.

In Malvern, atop the Santa Cruz Mountains, on lands shared by farmers with the BMR wind farm, Linton Miller and two helpers were busy reaping carrots. He was getting $70 to $80 per pound for the root vegetable, he said. Before hotels and schools “lock down” and a general slump in business caused by COVID-19, he was getting $100 to $120 per pound.

He dismissed his tomato crop as a virtual non-starter. “Tomato not moving at all,” said Miller.

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