The agricultural master plan that failed but succeeded


Sunday, July 22, 2018

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In 1983 Jamaica celebrated its 21st anniversary of Independence. In giving consideration to a suitable monument to mark the occasion, I proposed to the Cabinet to increase investment and modern technology in order to tackle the problem of idle hands and idle lands.

The investment would be driven by the improved business environment made possible by the enhanced competitiveness gained from the Structural Adjustment Programme policies of devaluation and deregulation, as established between Jamaica and the International Monetary Fund. Devaluation would encourage local production by making imported products too expensive to compete with local production. It was envisaged that new technology would be introduced to shift more farm operations from subsistence agriculture into commercial enterprises. The project would be called Agro 21.

It would also be necessary to determine whether new crops with new markets should be introduced to utilise the land. A resource map showing land capability was used to determine crop suitability, and a lease for commercial size lots was structured which would be bankable for larger investors.

Profiles for 21 crops were prepared, some for existing products and others for new crops, indicating production costs and expenditure. The subsectors selected were: rice, corn/sorghum, soyabean, beef, dairy, cassava, pineapple, banana, coconut, citrus, forestry, orchard crops (papaya, mango), cocoa, coffee, tobacco, ethnic crops (plantains, yams, and dasheen), ornamental agriculture, winter vegetables and apiculture.

Some 270,000 acres of land were identified for cultivation, additional to existing land in production.

A steering committee was established which I chaired with Dr Percival Broderick, minister of agriculture, as deputy chairman. The responsibility of the ministry was to get small growers in the vicinity involved in a “mother farm” relationship by which small farmers would be provided with seeds, fertilisers, agricides and technology using the “mother farm” concept, which would be responsible for marketing.

All elements of a comprehensive plan were in place.

Implementation of Agro 21 was to have been launched with trial plots cultivating competitively priced local substitutes for imported edible crops: rice, milk, meat, fish, soyabean, as well as cassava, corn and sorghum as replacements for animal feed and human-consumption ingredients. These trials soon established that even with the reduced rate of exchange of the Jamaican dollar, production costs were not competitive with imports. In addition, many of the other standard crops (coffee, cocoa, tobacco, etc) showed less than spectacular results in yields.

As a result of the low out-turn of the above crops, the winter vegetable project became the flag bearer of Agro 21, along with the intensive production of fish in freshwater ponds using high-tech stocking techniques from Israel; the cultivation of bananas in the most unlikely area — the dry, hot Vere plains of the southern parish of Clarendon; and fruit orchards, notably papaya, mangoes, and horticulture, were promoted.

The winter vegetable project was the first real attempt by Jamaica to market vegetables for the American winter market. The rationale was not that Jamaica could produce vegetables cheaper than Florida or California, but that there were periods of very cold weather in the annual climate pattern of the American mainland where temperatures were severe and the supply of vegetables by the producing states was very limited.

At this point, the north-eastern American states would pay a premium price for vegetables, which were supplied generally out of Mexico. The project, however, was risky because the vegetables had to mature at the same time that the weather became very cold in the US, causing a surge in demand for alternative supplies. If the bad weather conditions did not coincide with the maturity cycle of the vegetables, the crop could not be marketed at the projected premium prices, even with the advantage of a competitive Jamaican, devalued dollar. This would result in severe losses. The winter vegetable project learned that lesson early.

This pioneering project was not initiated in Jamaica by Jamaicans. The originators were some Israelis who came to Jamaica in mid-1981 to grow winter vegetables without seeking any official assistance. They simply leased some land on the Spring Plain property in Clarendon and proceeded to clear the growth of bush and weeds. After a few weeks, in September 1981, they proceeded to seed the land.

By January/February 1982 they were exporting zucchinis to the US in jumbo jets which was returning empty to America from Colombia. I heard about this project when the seedlings had begun to grow. I visited the farm. The sight of a good many acres of zucchini in neatly constructed beds were a real thrill to me as it would have been to any lover of agriculture in a country where very few crops were cultivated in such a manner.

Most cultivation was mixed on small lots, except for the plantation crops: sugar, banana, and coffee. Of special interest was the use of irrigation from strategically placed rubber tubes, with tiny nozzles at intervals to supply water directly to the roots of plants. This was the drip irrigation system from Israel which used less water and produced greater yields.

I indicated to the Israeli group that the Government would have an interest to participate in a joint venture in order to expand production and enable the export price to be more competitive. What I really had in mind, however, was something more fundamental. I had recognised from in the late 1960s that the strategy of manufacturing goods for import substitution was not the answer to the unemployment problem. It was important to make the individual the centre of the development process by creating a labour-intensive model of development.

From as early as 1962, in both the Legislative Council and the House of Representatives, I had outlined my intention to focus on employment creation as the principal strategy so as to benefit the lowest level of workers directly, knowing that they were more inclined to spend on consumer goods which were required in their daily lives. Their expenditure on these goods would drive the economy from the bottom up, creating economic growth at all levels.

The Spring Plain project was the answer to that problem because of the employment of thousands of workers on the farm. Better yet the employees were mostly women, who comprised the largest section of the unemployed in the labour force. This project could be the way forward, I felt. But we proceeded cautiously.

In 1982 the publicly owned National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ) was given the responsibility of investing in Agro 21. A joint venture company was launched — Jamaica Agro Production (JAP). The NIBJ was chaired by Dr Dhiru Tanna, an economist who had fled from the Idi Amin purge of businesses in Uganda which was owned by ethnic minorities. Tanna was previously the CEO of the NIBJ and Meyer Matalon, the chairman. With Dr Tanna as the chairman, Meyer Matalon was asked to take charge of the Agro 21 project, JAP. Financing was provided by the NIBJ and expertise was provided by the Israelis.

The first attempt to establish the winter vegetable project on a large basis involved 250-300 acres of cultivation. It commenced in September 1982 to meet the 1983 winter market. However, for several reasons there was a loss of $6.8 million in the first year, the main problem being that all the space in the jumbo jet returning empty from Colombia, which provided air freight for the vegetables to New York, had to be fully leased although the cargo was insufficient to fill the space. This was most uneconomical. Production had to be increased to fill the planes, reducing unit cost.

After the operational loss in the first year, it was decided to send high-level technical missions to Israel to review the winter vegetable technology and mode of crop management. This would determine whether investment would proceed for a second winter — 1984. Based on the reports received, it was decided that the winter vegetable programme should be continued, but purchase should be made of a modern sorting and packing plant from Israel. Further, in order to spread the risk of the winter vegetable project, other projects should be added for diversification, to minimise the risk.

The mission advised that Israeli freshwater fish farming and banana cultivation should be added, and a drip irrigation factory established to manufacture the tubing. As a consequence, a decision was taken to proceed. The NIBJ purchased Spring Plain and the adjoining St Jago property to allow for expansion.

These projects began in 1983 with cultivation increasing to 500 acres. The stage was being set for a new agricultural venture which, if successful, could be expanded throughout the southern plains of Jamaica to meet the enormous demand of the United States eastern seaboard. This would go a long way in solving the unemployment problem. But nature intervened.

The selection of the southern Vere Plain was because it was dry but well-fed by excellent wells. Rain-fed irrigation was not desirable because it was unpredictable. The Israeli technology required the use of drip irrigation operated by computers installed in the field at strategic points, to measure and apply the precise amount of water to each root. Rainfall would make control of the system impossible and flood rains would be disastrous.

Meteorological data showed, historically, less than an average of two inches of rainfall in the January-April growing/reaping period as the annual pattern to be expected. But in February, 1984 flood rains deluged the Clarendon area. As much as 10 inches fell in a single day in February 1984, the critical month of the project. What was worse was the repeat of these flood rains in 1985, with water levels reaching as high as eight feet. In both 1984 and 1985 the project was virtually flooded out, leaving very little produce to reap.

In November 1986, with the area under cultivation now 1,000 acres, flood rains again intervened, destroying the crop. With time permitting for the winter period, new crops were planted. 10,000 short tons were reaped and exported in a new planting period after the November flood rains. This resulted in late ripening of the vegetables. The harvest reached the market too late for the window of severe winter and had to be sold at 30 per cent less than projected. The yield, however, was excellent, exceeding projections.

With three successive years of disappointing results it was decided not to proceed further with the winter vegetable project. It was termed a failure in the media although the excellent crop yield showed the probability of great success over a full season in the absence of flood rains. We learned later that winter vegetable farming was usually judged on a seven-year cycle in other producing countries, where some years showed losses but the overall period was profitable.

The decision not to pursue the winter vegetable project put thousands of female workers out of jobs. But it was not possible, in the midst of a period of cutting expenses severely to stabilise the fiscal account on which the economy critically depended, to continue with a loss project.

The effort to introduce high-tech agriculture did not fail, however, nor did Agro 21. The banana project — Victoria Banana plantation — a substantial employer of labour, was successful to the extent that it produced yields of up to 20 tons per acre, substantially exceeding the yield of the best privately operated plantation — Eastern Bananas. The profit was healthy. So too was the fish farm where high-technology methods of stocking used in Israel were employed.

More than one variety of fish was raised in the same pond, each inhabiting a different level — some near the surface, others near the bottom. Further, all female fingerlings were transformed to males to allow maximum growth by saving the energy which would have been expended in mating. This was done by a special technology. At the opening of the Spring Plain Packing Plant I cautioned that the gender-conversion technology should not be allowed to escape into the wider population.

There was another record of strong performance. The Planning Institute of Jamaica, in a report to the Office of the Prime Minister on August 18, 1988, recorded significant progress over the first three years of Agro 21:

* 50,000 of a targeted 65,000 acres were put into production — a 78 per cent achievement:

* 26,750 new jobs were created compared to the targeted 33,645 — an 80 per cent achievement;

* US$35.24 million of foreign exchange savings or earnings, a 69 per cent achievement.

More than anything else, this speaks to the promise of what Agro 21 could have accomplished in job creation, agricultural production, and foreign exchange earnings had it not been struck down by mother nature and untimely public criticism when the economy was most vulnerable.

Agro 21 left a legacy of a thriving, high-tech, banana plantation; successful growing techniques for freshwater fish; exportable papayas and mangoes; the introduction of drip irrigation for many crops; and the beginning of a successful project of horticultural exports. It's only disappointment was the winter vegetable project, from which valuable lessons were learned.

It is my view that Jamaica cannot afford to abandon such a project if in the future it is to convert idle hands on idle lands to production from the fertile soil which produced several outstanding, renowned premium crops.

The conclusion could be drawn by 1986, however, that agriculture was, only to a limited extent, one of the new legs on which the economy could depend to substantially improve export earnings.

The reduced expectation in the agricultural sector was overcome by the other two subsectors which were strengthened and enhanced under the Structural Adjustment Programme — garment exports and tourism.

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