Local farmers disorganised ... and losing
Claudia Gardner, Hospitality Jamaica Writer
Jamaica's small farmers have still not fully organised themselves into formal purpose-driven groups in order to benefit in a meaningful way from lucrative agro-tourism linkages.
According to members of the local farming fraternity in Hanover, a parish with one of the largest numbers of hotel rooms in the island, while there have been complaints about tourism interests in importing the vast majority of their food supply, much of which can be produced locally, this is not due to an unwillingness on the part of the hotel chains to buy Jamaican.
"This is due, in most cases, to an unwillingness of farmers themselves to form partnerships with each other, to leverage resources to ensure that they are able to consistently supply the tourism sector with farm produce," says Donald Campbell, convenor of the Hanover-based Riverside Farmers Group.
Campbell said there were hotels buying products from abroad but most of the hotels will support local farmers as long as they are consistent.
"The hotels want cash crops. They need vegetables, and fruits like ripe bananas, papayas, pumpkins and so on. If they are going to buy callaloo, for instance, to prepare their Jamaican breakfast, they will want to know that every week, they will be able to get callaloo from us," he told Hospitality Jamaica.
He added that it makes no sense for a hotel to sign a contract with a farmer and ask to be supplied with produce for a period and then, at the end of the period, they can't get another set to continue the contract.
Vice-president of the Clifton/Mt Peace branch of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, Ray Kerr, concurred with Campbell, but went a step further, stating that farmers have not only failed to recognise the importance of strong farming organisations, but many are not keeping up to date with modern farming trends. A small farmer, Kerr cultivates peppers, plantains, potatoes, and conducts apiculture on two acres of land in Clifton in Hanover.
"The farmers are not capitalising on the linkages, because they continue to produce in a fragmented way - and that will not work when conducting business with an organised market like the hotel sector," Kerr said.
He is recommending that the farmers stay abreast with the new technologies, such as using the computer to conduct research, find niche markets and see what people are doing in other countries.
"They need capacity building in terms of even the business approach to farming, book-keeping and in administration, as to how to run a small business. Farmers don't love to be organised. Sometimes they really shy away from things like meetings, maybe because of the workload they have," he added.
In a background study of the Regional Agro-tourism Policy of CARICOM published in June 2010, agro-tourism specialist at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), Ena Harvey, noted that "current market research indicates a preference by tourists for a product and an experience that is authentic, linked to local foods, culture and heritage in a destination, and a willingness to proactively select and pay a premium price for such an experience'".
The IICA report said studies conducted in Jamaica in 2008 noted that "the local agricultural sector is estimated to control approximately 30 per cent of the US$177 million in agricultural output consumed by the tourism industry with the other 70 per cent representing imports".
The report also noted that attempts by farmers and farming groups to make inroads have not been sustainable and that hotels have avoided such arrangements because of the perceived difficulties of dealing with numerous individual farmers and inconsistencies of both delivery and quality. It attributed this to a myriad of factors including, but not limited to, poor road conditions, soil management problems, lack of protected seed nursery to allow for scheduled planting of vegetable seeds, lack of business organisation, inadequate training and availability of tools for business management, record keeping and business operations and group dynamic.
Rural Agricultural Development Authority parish manager for Hanover, Ransford Barnes, told Hospitality Jamaica that the onus was on the farmers to be more cohesive in order to supply the unmet needs of the tourism sector. He said there were 32 active farmers groups in the parish.
"We have a listing of the produce needed by the hotels, and it's mostly vegetables, so we are trying to sensitise these farmers across the parish to form themselves in groups and along with our marketing officer here, try to forge some linkages with the hotels," he said.