Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Jamaican Farm for the Future

When I was young my uncles use to call be both "infahma" (informer) and farmer:
  1.  I would tell my grandmother on my uncles every time I see them doing something they should not be doing, so "infahma" in Jamaican Patios was informer and
  2. At an early age I developed a love for farming, loved the soil.  
My grandmother did not let the small plot of land around her house go to waste. She could not afford to and so she utilized as much of the land as she could and I was there every step of the way to help her. At the center of our farming world was the chickens and it was my job to make sure the chicken coop was cleaned, chickens watered, fed, eggs collected and fighting birds kept apart. This was a job I did with pride, except on one occasion when one of the hens laid her eggs under the house. It was my job to go under the house and collect these eggs but on that day both the hen and the roaster did not want that to happen. She wanted to make baby chickens and I wanted to eat her eggs for breakfast, as a result I was tagged teamed by both the hen and the Roaster. I was about 9 years of age and I can still remember like it was yesterday. However I cannot remember how I made my escape and I still have the scars to show for it. Being beaten up by two birds in a confined space is no fun, not to mention I ended up cutting my wrist on a broken glass and almost needed stitches. But it was the teasing I got from my uncles that was the worse, my uncles had a field day with that, imagine farmer the person who feed and look after them, being beaten by his damn chickens. 

Having chickens really helped to reduce my grandmother’s grocery bills, this represented meat on the table and eggs for breakfast.  The selection process as to which chicken to kill for the Sunday dinner was sometimes very hard especially when you start naming these birds, this meant that I have gotten too close to my  food source but it was this birds turn to provide food for our family. At times I would not only help to select the bird for slaughter but would carry out the execution myself, a process my grandmother encouraged so I do not lose sight of why we farm and the importance of farming to the family finances. 

The other aspect of farming I really love was planting food crops, putting seeds in the ground and waiting for them to germinate, seeing young plants breaking through the soil was very exciting to me.  I first experienced this in primary school, the teacher showed us how to put seeds and cotton wool in a jar and then add water, day after day we would watch for signs of life and when that seed opened and the young plant emerged it was pure excitement in the classroom.

Our back yard garden would include Bananas, Callaloo, tomatoes, pepper, yam, sugar cane, gungo peas, cerasee, scallion, mint just to name a few.  The banana plant was the most amazing to me, it’s a very giving plant not only does it give you bananas but it also gives you several young suckers from which to start planting again and before you know it we had to give away young Banana suckers to our neighbors. 

These food crops went a long way to reduce the weekly grocery bills as well as to supplement the family income as excess food reaped or chickens would also be sold to the neighbors. On many occasions our neighbors would wake us by knocking at the gate asking for Callaloo or a chicken to buy.  I remember growing parsley in a bucket and my aunt who managed the hotel in Port Antonio would buy the entire lot for the hotel kitchen, that made me feel good knowing that people from far away countries was enjoying my parsley, I was about 11 then.

Over the years since then it was not farming that grabbed my interest but computers, software development is how I now make my living, it seemed somewhere along the way I fell prey to the notion that is so prevalent in Jamaica, that farming is a poor man’s way of existing. Ever since slavery ended Jamaicans have resented working the land, that was slave work and no one wanted their offspring to engage in it. After all the slave master never got his hands dirty and his kids were all lawyers, doctor, civil servants and Bankers, so what’s good enough for the masters was good enough for the ex-slaves. Even to this day if you tell some people you wanted to be a farmer they would laugh at you because to them farming is not something anyone should aspire to and if you insist on being a farmer then you are only respected if you do it on a grand scale like the estate slave owners of the past or a middle America capital intense farm while driving a Range Rover Sport with all the bling. We are a materialistic people where the perception of wealth is more important than actually having wealth or even defining what wealth means.  For me if you realize your hopes and dream and you are happy and content with your life then you are wealthy, there is nothing more you want or need in life.


So now I have come full circle, I am now obsessed with farming and the environment, in particular I am obsessed with the permaculture method of organic farming. I was first introduced to permaculture one day when I was researching organic farming, I came across a video on youtube called “A Farm for the Future” by Rebecca Hosking set in the Devon County of England, I have a love affair with Devon much like my love affair with Port Antonio, Portland but I will leave that for another time.  Rebecca Hosking is a camerawoman, who spearheaded a campaign to make the Devon town of Modbury the first in Britain to ban plastic bags and she was honoured by the queen with a MBE.

Farming without oil - Rebecca Hosking

Permaculture (permanent and culture/agriculture) is an approach to designing agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies. Permaculture is returning your land back to nature, simply because nature knows best, to me it is a holistic way of food production.

The Father of Permaculture Bill Mollison writes:

"The aim is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term."

"Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area."

 If you leave a piece of land to nature it will become green and lush, a balance, diverse  eco system would be created and maintained by nature. This piece of land may or may not contain foods we can eat but it is thriving with various plants and animal life.  If we could somehow replace the plants we cannot eat with food producing plants and find a way to attract beneficial insects, plants and animal life that will support our mini eco system then we would have created a self sustaining Food Forrest. 

In a natural forest there is no need to dig and sow, plant and weed, or spray bugs, still, all those chores are taken care of somehow, the forest grows and feeds its inhabitant. Nature is the ultimate recycler everything goes round and round there is no such thing as "waste" everything is a resource. Design is the keyword here It's all about how you place the design elements together, look at how things work together in nature, and then try and mimic that design in your garden and on your farm.

In “A Farm for the Future” Rebecca Hosking outlined why today’s method of farming is not sustainable, she showed how much oil is required to produce an acre of crop, she showed the effects that pesticide and plowing is having on the land and wild life and she interviewed various farmers who uses Permaculture design principles to produce food. She points how polyculture farming (multiple crops) is so much better food system than monoculture farming.

What I now realize is that my grandmother was a permaculture farmer, her methods was simple and natural from walking behind defecating donkeys and horses picking up their feces for fertilizer, to using her herbal concoction as pesticide or collecting and using urine to add nitrates to the soil she was an organic farmer.  She knew what plants the chickens liked to eat and when she had no money to buy feed that was what they got, plus left over rice, stale bread nothing went to waste. On the parts of the land not in use, the chickens were allowed to forage for food and in so doing they would fertilize the soil.

Reinventing Myself
Now I am hoping to re-invent myself as an Organic, Permaculture farmer, a Brew master of Real Ale and a pub owner so far I have secured a couple acres of land in St. Mary but that is as far as I gotten. I have not taken a lot of chances in my life, up till now it has gone according to the script, schools, pass exams, get a job in an office, try and crawl my way up the corporate ladder. This was done because others and myself thought that this was what I was place on this earth to do, being content and happy played a minor part in the decision process.  Taking that leap into the unknown is not an easy thing to do and Jamaican parents don’t really care about your dreams or hope, they care about their hope and dreams for you, good education and a bank work, this is a fault of the Jamaican school system, we are a reading, writing and arithmetic society educated to take very little chance, we have a saying in Jamaica “Never leave sure for unsure” that saying is a sure innovation killer.

Jamaica Farming Revolution
I think we are on the verge of a farming revolution in Jamaica, I really hope so, I think finally our politicians gets it, that it is their responsibility to push a pro Jamaican solution for our problems. Our food import bill is way too high and has been too high for decades now but we have never had a government that pushes local production since the 1970’s. At the start of the 1980’s successive governments have equated freedom and democracy with the freedom to import and as this freedom wins votes, give the people what they want and they will vote for you. Eat what you grow and grow what you eat is not a concept that was created this year, it is a concept that was created and was pushed by the government of the 70s but then it became bad words, socialist and communist talk, people use to curse the government saying that they wanted them to eat “nyaga” (Negro) food as imported food from America held more status. I remember passing a protest, a road block in 1980, one woman screamed that  she wanted to see Kellogs cornflakes and American apples on the supermarket shelf even if she cannot afford to buy them.

Jamaica’s farming revolution will require a new breed of farmers who are able to think and operate outside of the box, farmers who are in touch with the modern farming world and the science of farming. Jamaica need a new breed of farmers, highly educated farmers who are not afraid to do the research, to experiment, to be business owners, Managers, biologist one day and a chemist the next, farmers who can grow their business to become food processors and manufactures, from packaging to marketing. The concept of research, development and engineering are no longer limited to the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industry, they are now a vital part of the farming industry. Our farmers must be able to understand the properties and benefits of various food items, keep up with modern day scientific discoveries, follow and adapt farming techniques being used all over the globe.

The problem we have is that most of our farmers are poorly educated country farmers. They are good at what they know and do, but what they know and do have not kept up with modern times, they are out of touch with today’s farming world. Their techniques and knowledge have been passed down from generation to generation but have not adapted to modern times and as such we are not able to compete in the modern market place. It is not surprising then that our Agricultural Ministry is forced to pick up the slack, they are forced to do the things our farmers are unable to do for themselves. I watched a video where one farmer complained that he has thousands of mangoes falling off the trees but no market and he would like the ministry to find him a market, he can grow it but he cannot market it and he cannot convert it into a secondary product because he does not know how to process, package and market Mangoes and its byproducts.

If most of our farmers were educated business people then they would not need the ministry to do this work on their behalf, our farmers are analog farmers trying to make their way in a digital world. Praedial larceny is a big problem for the Jamaican farmers but most of our farmers have never heard of or seen modern farming security systems, to help deal with this plague, these are the type of innovation that is missing.

With the rising price of oil and the global economic recession our government is now forced to seek alternatives to food import. The United Nation have announced that global food prices are going to rise in the coming months and years, so not only is this an alternative to import but a chance for us to increase food export and earn foreign exchange. We are now seeing what we can accomplish when we take the politics out of the process and come together as Jamaicans to support local initiative which are in the national interest of our country. As a result people are slowly now beginning to think of farming, farmers and local produce in a different light, as an integral part of our development, our food processing companies are now using natural home grown produce to create value added products.  This is only the beginning, it is the governments duty and responsibility to sell, PUSH the brand Jamaica to Jamaicans.

Re-Branding Jamaica

Jamaica needs an ideology, the people need something to believe in, something to rally around, something everybody can get on board with, the ideology of nationalism, the ideology of patriotism, the ideology of self reliance and the ideology of Jamaica first are perfect rallying point. Before we can sell the brand Jamaica to anyone else we must first have a brand we the Jamaican people believe in.  We need to redefine what it means to be a Jamaican, what it means to be a Jamaican worker,  a Jamaican farmer , a Jamaican producer  and we need to redefine what it means to consume goods and services made in Jamaica.


  1. A Big pleasure reading about your life and love of farming. I am in NY and learning how important farming is everywhere.
    One Love

  2. I really enjoyed your article, though I suppose you have written it quite a long while ago. I am however currently hoping to purchase some land 20-60 acres and work towards developing a small intentionally planned, permaculture based community with some friends in the coming years.

    I would love to talk to you further about making connections with the permaculture community in Jamaica, your experiences, and the realities of building a market on the island for the produce. Since I plan to buy outright, and I am a simple person who has no interest in extravagant things, I don't need to make tonnes of money and I would prefer not to sell outside of the island. I don't want to further contribute to climate change by exporting if I can avoid it.
    Any chance you would consider talking further with me?

    Thank you for your time.


  3. This is a great blog entry. I am a bit obsessedwith Portland myself even though I have never been there. I am also thinking about getting into farming myself. I work in IT in the states but I am seriously thinking about moving back and starting a farm. A few years ago I was home first morning I went to yam hill with my grandpa. A few of the other farmers were baffled why a "farrina" was digging yam hill when the boys out there didn't want to do it. I hope more young people are encourage to get into farming. Its a high and prestigious science just like the rest.