FARMERS in Walkerswood, St Ann, are expecting to lose millions in the coming weeks as the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hits markets for their produce.
Measures to arrest the infectious disease outbreak have forced the Government to close the country’s borders to incoming passengers, effectively crippling the group’s main market — hotels.
Fifteen-year veteran and president of the United Greenhouse Growers Association Wighan Gordon did not see this crisis coming — a virus which does not affect crops but which now threatens the agricultural sector.
“What mi have reaping now is sweet pepper in the greenhouse and the sweet pepper we grow in the greenhouse is the coloured pepper (ripe) so most of it we grow for the hotel sector. Because of the hotels closing down now my distributor that I work with them say they not coming for no goods this week because their market dry up, so it reach back to us now,” Gordon said in an interview with the Jamaica Observer last Wednesday in the parish.
“So our peppers are on the tree now and we’re yet to get the market for it. Local market is picking up a little but not as much as what we would normally sell on a regular weekly basis to what go inna the hotel chain,” he continued.
On average, his distributors would deliver two trucks of produce three times per week to hotels in and around Ocho Rios.
Already, produce are beginning to rot.
Gordon explained that because of how quickly ripe sweet peppers perish, local vendors are reluctant to purchase them, adding that they are grown specifically for the hotel sector.
“It a go work inna millions,” the famer said when asked what he estimated his loss to be.
“Shortly, it a go go inna the millions because [of] the amount of greenhouses we have inna the area — and when we do greenhouse we mainly go for coloured peppers,” he added, mentioning that ripe peppers can sell for $250 per pound.
Distributors collect up to 2,000 pounds per week.
“So it a go run inna millions. It’s early days yet, but I can foresee that say we a go run inna millions; a whole lot of millions in losses,” he lamented.
But the group’s troubles do not stop there.
Plan B is to fall back on hot peppers, which farmers in the area supply to Walkerswood Caribbean Foods. However, it is not clear if that option is still on the table as the country enters the fourth phase of the COVID-19 pandemic — community transmission — in which manpower is expected to become significantly reduced in some areas.
“Presently, a lot of farmers plant hot peppers for the factory. The factory is still taking hot peppers but it’s not reaping season. All of them is in production right now coming up to say April May… So we’re still looking and hopeful seh the factory won’t close down [because] then wi a go run inna bankruptcy next,” he said, informing the Observer that already, four of the 10 people he employed have been made redundant.
“Mi have six right now and next week it can change. The workers I have is just to maintain what I have right now and to see if I can get something from what I have right now. So mi start cutting staff already, so basically it nuh look so pretty down the line. So we haffi just deal with faith now ,” he added.
Ex-policeman turned farmer Dwight Roache will also know his fate in the weeks ahead.
The hot pepper farmer is preparing to reap his first batch of the season next month, but is uncertain of a market for the produce.
“The batch is ready for harvesting in another month or so but I will not have an outlet or a market. I am still hopeful, but because we have not met, I don’t know if it’s because of COVID-19 that we have not met but I was expecting that the factory would have called us in as farmers who they know would normally supply and say to us what their perspective is on the future as it relates to this. But we have not yet gotten that, so I am just in limbo as it relates to what will happen,” Roache put forward.
He has been in farming since 2014 and is in his third year of producing hot peppers, but that might be cut short, he told the Observer, if the country does not find a way to flatten the curve of this deadly disease.
“I’m looking to say I could harvest very close to 100,000 pounds of pepper and that is being conservative, so this [COVID-19] can be a great impact on the pockets if I don’t have a market for it. We’re talking millions here now. The [local] vendors may come and take a few pounds but they are a minor part of the thing. They will not be able to absorb all of what is to come so we look to the factory as the main source,” he shared.
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