Featured in: The Gleaner
Written by: Claudia Gardner
Neil Curtis, founder and president of Farm Up Jamaica, says wide-scale organic agriculture is the key to lifting Jamaica out of its current economic rut and creating a path to prosperity.
“There is a shortage of organic foods worldwide, whether it is an onion or a pepper. America, for example, grows onions, but they do not grow enough organic onions,” said Curtis in an interview with Western Focus at the recent Sixth Biennial Jamaica Diaspora Conference in Montego Bay. “The organic market is a speciality market. I don’t know all the numbers, but I know the demand for organic is growing by 20 per cent per year, globally.
“We (Jamaica) import $1 billion worth of food and we only export $250 million … the more foreign currency that we have to purchase to buy those imports, is the more we devalue the dollar,” continued Curtis.
“We have a high unemployment rate; however, there are 207,000 farmers. If each one of these farmers on average could employ five people, how many jobs is that? Over a million,” stated Curtis.
“The population is 2.7 million. If you have a million jobs, that means Jamaica is fixed. It’s over; there is nothing else to talk about. Everything else falls into place there. Two hundred and seven thousand farmers represent almost 10 per cent of the population; the others already have jobs or are schoolchildren,” added Curtis.
how it began
Curtis was spurred into farming in 2013 after a relative of his died and left 60 acres of cocoa behind for which he was unable to find an agency readily available to provide support services. He attended the diaspora conference under way at the time and put forward the Farm Up Jamaica concept, which was readily accepted by the members of the diaspora and resident Jamaicans in attendance.
Farm Up Jamaica was registered and established by diaspora members as a non-profit organisation in New York last year. It outlined its mission as assisting “distressed farmers in Jamaica with the cultivation of organic food in efforts to create green jobs, reduce importation of food, increase exportation, and make nutritious food available” in an effort to balance the country’s economy.
The organisation provides comprehensive farming assistance to farmers by subsidising the preparing of lands and building access roads; improving machinery and irrigation; adding surveillance systems to combat praedial larceny; and providing seeds, harvesting, and transportation of food to buyers.
Curtis said the problem of farmers finding markets and being shunned by hotels could be easily solved if they converted to organic farming.
“The hotels have an option to buy conventionally produced food locally or abroad, but they don’t have an option to buy organic food locally,” said Curtis. “They only buy it abroad because it is planted on a miniscule level here for one, and two, it’s not enough to give them supply for a whole year. The proper organisation is not in place where everybody is doing it the right way and making sure it is consistent …. we bring a lot of structure … .”
Ja poised for success
When we speak to our hotels here in Jamaica, they are happy that we have organic food and want all of it. Once tourists hear that there is organic food in Jamaica, they are coming to Jamaica,” said Curtis.
“Jamaica is poised for success. What about the vacant lands that are just laying fallow? Those are farm lands. If you have untouched lands anywhere in the world, it is a commodity because in order to farm organically, you need virgin land or lands that haven’t been farmed for four or five years.”
Today, Farm Up Jamaica has garnered support from organisations such as The Gleaner Company, Power 106FM, doTerra, Caribbean Airlines, Hanover Charities, and the Jamaica National Building Society. In January this year, the organisation, in collaboration with essential oils manufacturer doTerra brought down 650 agro-tourists from the mid-United States to plant ginger in the community of Haddo in Westmoreland.
“doTerra is the largest manufacturer of essential oils in the world … a billion-dollar company, and they wanted to see where ginger oil comes from and to show all of their wellness advocates where ginger oil comes from,” said Curtis. “They all came to plant that ginger, and in nine or 10 months, they will come back to see how it’s reaped, and they are going to buy that ginger oil. They want us to process and sell them that ginger oil.”
In addition, 8,000 pounds of organic ginger and turmeric were sold to a major Jamaican food store in New York, which, according to Curtis, “flew off of the shelves”.