LACOVIA, St Elizabeth — Karen Richards has always wanted to be able to buy fresh farm produce at reasonable prices without having to enter crowded marketplaces.
So when she heard second hand about a farmers’ mart set for April 17 at Lacovia Community Centre, where people could practise social distancing while buying farm “stuff”, she jumped at the opportunity.
When the Jamaica Observer visited, Richards was loading three boxes of fruits, vegetables, Irish and sweet potatoes, and other produce into her vehicle. Each box cost $1,200, she said.
“Somebody was scrolling through Facebook and saw it [information about the farmers’ mart] and told me about it,” explained Richards.
In addition to benefiting from easy, affordable shopping, Richards was pleased to play even a small part in helping to ease a glut in farm produce following the sudden, catastrophic collapse of Jamaica’s US multibillion-dollar tourist industry, triggered by COVID-19.
“I heard the farmers in south-west [St Elizabeth] saying they are in reaping mode and [produce] backing up; I kind of felt for them. [It is] not easy to work in the sun hot and then don’t have any market,” she said.
Richards was among scores of people turning up at the community centre, over a period of several hours, to buy farm products at what Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth North Western JC Hutchinson said would be the first of many such events in Lacovia, wider St Elizabeth, and throughout Jamaica.
“This is an outlet for all who want to come and buy,” explained Hutchinson, who is also minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries. The Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) collaborated with Hutchinson in putting on the Lacovia event.
The plan, Hutchinson said, had been to sell 100 packages at the initial farmers’ mart in Lacovia. As it turned out, the demand was about three times as much. He named tomato, pumpkin, melon, cucumber, papaya, and root crops, among the items on sale.
In addition to the outlet in Lacovia, Hutchinson said locations would be established elsewhere in St Elizabeth and “throughout” the island.
“When we set up these food marts, [farmers] can sell their produce to the food mart and then the food mart sells it off… we are carrying the market to the consumer,” he boasted.
Hutchinson said the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) was playing an active role in acquiring goods from farmers for the Lacovia event and other farmers’ markets. RADA was also selling directly to consumers in some cases, he said.
Trucks operated by RADA had been going to “direct spots and selling to people”, Hutchinson said.
The crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had provided an “opportune time for us to structure the agriculture sector…” so that farmers and end-users benefit. And, proper marketing of farmers’ produce, as well as processing to add value were crucial, he said.
To that end, a partnership was being forged with food processors for greater utilisation of such products as pineapples and other fruits and vegetables for juices, to serve the school feeding programme when schools reopen as well as the wider market, Hutchinson said.
Kayon Whyne, head of JAS in St Elizabeth who was on spot in Lacovia, hailed the various initiatives to take farm produce off the hands of farmers. However, she also called for greater investment by the Government, in areas such as drought relief, to improve agricultural efficiency.
Noting that the annual dry spell in the early months of the year had extended deep into April, Whyne said: “This is 2020 and we have not invested [enough] in water [for farmers]. They are asking us [farmers] to replant, [and] we are willing to replant but we need water. It costs $18,000 for a truckload of water… And that’s just a one-day watering. We need substantial investment,” she said.
The JAS representative observed that in St Elizabeth “we have a lot of wells, most of them privately owned…”
Government, she said, needed to be more proactive in providing secure water sources, including investment in wells for farmers’ use.
Hutchinson noted that the Jamaican Government had invested in irrigation projects in recent years and was eyeing an expanded programme for water harvesting, and storage in ponds for farmers’ use at higher elevations where more elaborate irrigation projects would prove prohibitively expensive.
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