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'Potato pioneer'

Rev George Lopp and the introduction of Irish potato to Jamaica

Gilfred K Morris

Sunday, November 04, 2018

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“Di sinting nyam so bad!” (This thing tastes so bad). This was the response of many old-timers to the eating of the newly introduced Irish potato in the late 1890s. How could they ever have dreamt that this new crop would become such a staple of our Jamaican diet, and that it would have such a powerful impact on the economic and social life of our society?

Strangely, there is little official information regarding the introduction of this temperate food crop into this island. The library at the Ministry of Agriculture has considerable material on the origin of the potato in South America; its introduction into Europe; its nutritional value; the important producing areas in Jamaica; the type of soil best for its cultivation, etc, etc. However, regarding its introduction into Jamaica, it has this to say:

“It is not known for certain how or when the potato was introduced into Jamaica. It is generally believed, however, that a Moravian missionary, Rev George Harrison Lopp, was among the first to introduce the crop from America. It was first planted at Bethany in Manchester in the early 1900s.”

The planting of the crop took on gradually in the early 1900s, after initially being introduced in the late 1890s.

Rev Lopp, an American, was the Moravian missionary stationed at Bethany from 1897 to 1903. Lopp was a burly man, active, and vitally interested in the economic as well as the spiritual well-being of his people. In his church report for 1898, he writes:

“During the past year, the minister of this congregation has undertaken to teach, by practical demonstration, improved methods of cultivation. Several men and boys have been trained to cultivate English and American products, with the hope of introducing other staple crops beside coffee. One practical result of the effort has been a constant supply of fresh vegetables for the minister's household quite equal to those grown at home.”

In his report for 1899 he comments on the slightly brighter economic outlook. He notes the low prices of coffee and pimento, but the people are turning to other crops and finding that it pays. Rev Lopp writes:

“We have again grown during 1899 a splendid crop of Irish potatoes being worth about twenty pounds. Some of our people have been induced to cultivate the potato, with usually satisfactory results.”

Certainly, he is the “Potato Pioneer”.

In the years after 1900, small farmers of this area of northern Manchester very gradually began to acquire the taste for this new food and were also realising that it had a future as a ready cash crop. The minute book of the Mizpah branch of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), late 1915 to 1920, gives us a fair insight into the increasing acceptance of the new crop in that immediate region of Manchester.

At the branch meeting of January 1917, Moravian missionary, Rev F Weiss, is president, and presides. The meeting is informed that three barrels of potatoes have been received by the branch. The agricultural instructor for the area was in attendance and in his address he urges members to turn to other crops like yams, bananas, and the new potato. At this same meeting a member moves a resolution that a competition be launched in which three prizes of five shillings, three shillings, and two shillings would be awarded for the best four pounds of potatoes reaped from seeds distributed. The resolution carries.

At the March 1917 meeting, the instructor had again to field various questions on potato cultivation. At the August meeting, the instructor complimented members on the recently successful potato competition and told them that year was a good year for potato planters. He cited two shining examples: One man he knew who had planted two barrels and had reaped 2,500 lb per barrel; another man had planted four barrels on a new piece of ground and had earned 37 in cash.

In the meantime, Rev Lopp had been transferred from Bethany to the Carmel station in Westmoreland, but ill health drove him back to the Manchester hills in late 1917, and he succeeded Rev Weiss at Mizpah. He again plunged into the agricultural life of the area, becoming president of the very effective Mizpah JAS branch. The branch minutes of November 1918 has Rev Lopp, the new minister, presiding. Understandably, he is asked to expound on Irish potato cultivation and he proceeds to give full directions on the preparation of the soil for the spring crop. For this he receives a resounding vote of thanks.

And so the spread of “Lopp's Potato” could not be stopped. From “Di sinting nyam so bad,” it gradually found its place on the palate of Jamaicans. As far back as 2004, in a phone conversation with Alvin Murray, the then secretary manager of the prosperous Christiana Potato Cooperative, he intimated that the Devon-Christiana area in Manchester was the largest potato-growing area in Jamaica — the very area in which Rev Lopp laboured. By that time potato cultivation had spread from Manchester on to areas in northern Clarendon, St Ann, the Guy's Hill district of St Mary, and the higher lands of St Elizabeth and Westmoreland. The Devon-Christiana area is still pre-eminent, but the Irish potato is now grown in virtually every parish of Jamaica.

Murray, speaking in 2004, was very proud of the Christiana Potato Cooperative, which he headed. He held it up as one of the most progressive production cooperatives in the Caribbean at that time. He noted its large membership, its 26 branches, and that it covered a radius of over 15 miles.

Murray reminded us of the amount of property bought, houses erected, extensive education acquired, the opportunities for travel — all made possible by the successful cultivation of the potato. It has contributed to our national food security, saved foreign exchange, increased farmers' income, and is a welcome addition to a wide variety of uses in the diet of the Jamaican population.

The year 2018 finds Murray alive and well, still an Irish potato farmer, and very alert to the extensive changes which have taken place in the potato industry. He refers to the now very heavy involvement of the private sector in the industry — for the marketing of the Jamaica crop, the supply of seed potatoes for planting, providing loan assistance, and also assistance with fertilisers and insecticides.

Murray remains pleased with the progress of the local potato industry and beams with pleasure when he recalls the 1984 boom year. In his view, St Ann and St Catherine have enormous potential for increased Irish potato cultivation.

Most definitely, Moravian missionary George Harrison Lopp bequeathed a tremendous legacy to all Jamaica.

Gilfred K Morris is a retired educator, historian and author. He is a graduate of Mico Teachers' College and The University of the West Indies, where he earned a BA (Special Honours) in History in 1964. He has taught in primary and high schools in Jamaica, then in high schools in Canada and The Bahamas and served in teacher training on the staff of Shortwood Teachers' College (1974-1979) and St Joseph's Teachers' College (1987-1996). He has written an autobiography, Up, From the Majestic Hills , as well as Stories From My Grandpa and Glimpses of Old Jamaica.

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