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KINGSTON — Local farmers are displaying their typical resilience, with recovery from Tropical Storm Nicole now estimated at some 85 per cent, as they increase production and repay the loans with which they were assisted to replant their crops and sustain their livelihood.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), Al Powell, explains that most farmers had lost  much of their crops, and the challenge is that of repaying loans granted to them under the Financial Access for Responsible Members (FARM) programme, to get back on their feet.

“I want to define ‘recovery’ as farmers who have paid off their loans, are paying their loans, those who, based on their cash flow, will be able to pay, and farmers who have said that in spite of all this, the additional loan I have taken is putting me in a stronger position to address all my loans,” he tells JIS News.

To show  how the farmers have bounced back from the storm late last year, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Hon. Dr. Christopher Tufton earlier this week announced that domestic food crop production for the January to March quarter was at its highest in 11 years, with some 147,378 tonnes produced, 24.4 per cent more than the corresponding quarter for 2010.

Mr. Powell says that about 15 per cent  of  farmers have not recovered,  and these are usually very small farmers, who may not have adequate resources. “The larger you are, the more innovation, the more flexibility, the more access to funds, and the more you will have collateral to be able to borrow again,” he explains.

Under the FARM programme, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries loaned  some $100 million, which farmers were initially given six months to repay. “They could not pay back all the debt, because we had in Jamaica (last year), the longest and most severe drought over the past 20 years. That affected crop productivity and growth, and  then Nicole came,” he explained. Of the almost $100 million, the farmers have repaid close to $60 million, which leaves $40 million to be collected.

Mr. Powell says the interest that was approved has been waived, given the length of time the repayments are taking. “The FARM programme basically says that if you have borrowed an amount from the bank, the Ministry will give you, may be,  20 per cent of it, up to a maximum of $500,000, and RADA does the selection of the farmers,  the monitoring, and guidance through the production process,” Mr. Powell says. The loan tranche of $100 million was for 2010/2011.

The programme seeks to establish a platform that will yield significant post- harvest benefits for farmers, as well as other stakeholders. FARM, which commenced in November 2009, aims to enhance Jamaica's agricultural output by facilitating persons, serious about making a livelihood out of farming, with funding access to finance their undertakings. It was implemented in the parishes of St. Elizabeth, St. Catherine, Manchester, Clarendon, and St. Thomas, St. Mary, St. Ann, and St. James.

The crops targeted include: Irish potatoes, onions, ginger, sorrel, hot peppers, and roots and tubers, such as yam, the markets for which the Ministry's Chief Technical Director, Dr. Marc Panton, says are considered to be "very deep."

Dr. Panton tells JIS News that in developing FARM, the Ministry focused, not only on crop production, but also took into consideration post harvest inputs, and the derivable benefits.

Some 570 farmers are now benefitting from the programme. “Very often, they are medium-sized farmers who do best practices. The FARM programme is intended to demonstrate best practices and increase production and productivity levels. So, it’s not just about farmers. We have to tie that into the output that is required,” Mr. Powell continues.

“The farmers are committed to paying back the money over a longer period. The final (deadline) was December 31, but we found out that that has not worked, and they have asked for another deadline. We are hoping that by June 30, everything will be cleared up,” he says.

In the meantime, to further assist the farmers, the Ministry has made recommendations to the National People’s Co-operative (PC) banks, to allow them to access additional funding. “But those persons who will qualify are those who have paid back up to 75 per cent of what was borrowed (under the FARM programme). So, if they do well with these crops, the surplus can go back into paying the current loan, as well as the past loan,” Mr. Powell says.

The National People's Co-operative Bank of Jamaica is the premier community Bank for rural agricultural development in the country.

Speaking to the Ministry’s thrust to increase production through efficiency, and the farmers’ role in this effort, Mr. Powell notes that, unlike in previous years, there is a mixture of farmers now, with new farmers who are college trained, and who quickly embrace the recommendations of the extension officers.  To assist the older or more resistant farmers, RADA has developed demonstration plots, which give them first-hand knowledge of how newer methodologies may increase crop yield and mitigate loss, such as that experienced with Tropical Storm Nicole last year.            

“So, if they are growing onions, we show that if you do it this way, and that way… you could get a 15 per cent increase in output, and this means more money. We are getting them into the practice of soil testing and the right spacing,” he explains.

Going forward, with the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season approaching, Mr. Powell is advising all farmers to heed the advice of their extension officers.

“For example, onions, although it has specific seasons to be planted, we may ask them not to plant at a certain time, because if the rains come, you will have a problem in the field with rot. Once farmers follow the planting season established by RADA, then they won’t have that problem,” he asserts.

He adds that farmers must ensure that they have an idea of how the crops they are planting will be sold, or where they are going to be stored, by following the guidelines and advice of  extension officers, who have vital and helpful information on market access.

According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), Jamaica has some 232,000 farmers. RADA has registered 141,000 of these. “We are trying to work hard to have the additional farmers registered,” Mr. Powell says, adding that many farmers refuse to be registered, as they fear that this is simply a means of trying to impose taxes on them.

Fourteen to 15 per cent of the 232,000 are livestock farmers; about 30 per cent are a mixture of livestock and crop farmers; while between 40 and 50 per cent are crop farmers, and a small number are engaged in forestry.

 

By ALPHEA SAUNDERS, JIS Reporter