We have just returned from a week trip to paradise, also known as Jamaica. While there, we had the opportunity to spend a day off the resort at a farm, learning about the agriculture on the island.
The island itself is the third largest of the Caribbean islands (square miles of land), measuring approximately 4200 square miles with a population approaching 3 million people. Forty-five percent of the population lives in rural areas of the island with only 51% of those people having access to potable water.
Comparatively, our home state of Missouri measures over 69,000 square miles and has a population of just over 6 million with only 30% of us living in rural areas.
The drive up to the farm was amazing. We left the city of Montego Bay and headed over an hour into the "hills" of the inner island.
The roads quickly went from highway to narrow, winding paths that cut between tiny towns of half constructed homes, small rural schools, and churches. We past dozens of children walking or waiting on busses to get to school, all wearing school uniforms, designed to minimize discrimination between the poor and better off.
When we pulled into Croydon Farm, I was overwhelmed with the beauty and shocked at the rolling hills. Being from the Midwest, I was expecting the farmland to be located in the valleys or flatter areas of the island and was surprised to see pineapple and coffee growing right out of the side of the mountains!
The temperature range on the farm was minimal, ranging from 78-90 degrees. Average rainfall was 90 inches per year.
In addition to areas of fruit and nut production and some spice production, the main products grown on the farm are bananas, coffee, and pineapples.
Soil conservation is important in Jamaica, just like in Missouri. Heavy rainfalls during the rainy season can lead to excessive soil loss from farming the hills so they use several different systems such as bench terracing, waterways, cover crops, and stilling basins to minimize the loss.
The different varieties have been developed for different taste, textures, transport ease, size, disease resistance and weather conditions. They have been developed using multiple different breeding techniques.
Depending on the variety, plants will start to produce fruit 12-22 months after planting and will continue to produce for 3-5 years. Along the way they will send up "sucker" plants that can be left to grow along side the parent plant or transplanted.
The banana plants are often grown along with coffee in Jamaica, as the large leaves of the bananas will offer much needed shade to the coffee plants.
Once the banana is ready to start producing fruit, it shoots up a large red flower. After the fruit is produced, the plant dies. From start to finish it's approximately 18 months.
Like pineapples, the plant will send up several other suckers before dying that will go on to produce fruit. The suckers may be left where they are, thinned out, or completely replanted to other areas.
The bananas are picked green for transport but if they are being served locally (like at our resort) they are picked at their peak and often consumed the same day! It's amazing how wonderful they are right off the tree but it's obviously not possible to get them to Missouri that way! Bugs and disease are the two largest challenges to raising bananas and pineapples.
Coffee can be grown on the steep hills that cannot grow anything else, can be stored for longer periods of time and is not sensitive to transportation. In many ways, it's similar to corn and soybeans for Midwest farm families.
On the farm the berries will be floated in a large vat of water. Any bad berries will float to the top and be discarded. These are berries that were typically infected with some type of disease or pest.
The coffee plant will produce for 3-5 years. Typical planting rate is around 840 plants to the acre, which can yield anywhere from 650-3000 pounds of ground coffee.
Coffee does better at higher elevations, creating a more dense and better yielding bean. The world renowned Blue Mountain Coffee from Jamaica has to be grown within 10 miles of the peak of Blue Mountain or it cannot be labeled and sold as pure Blue Mountain Coffee. We brought some home and paid $45 for a 1 pound bag of whole beans (yes it's that good!). Comparatively, Starbucks sells their coffee on Amazon for $13 a pound.
The rural people are deeply religious and hard working souls that carry a tangible satisfaction that so often comes with working the land and raising food for the people of your country.
However, It is still very labor intense, and lacking in much of the technology we take for granted here. Farm workers are not often well paid- minimum wage is $1.21/hour or less than $50 per week. It goes without saying that many rural workers are not paid minimum wage.
With interest rates typically running around 35%, it's very hard for locals to make any progress and very few can afford to borrow any money for investment or expansion. Even though the island has a variety of agriculture production, it still imports most of its food and food costs are very high.
The views are breathtaking, the food is amazing. They served us lunch on the farm that words cannot even explain. If you visit the island, it's well worth the time to leave the luxury and comfort of your resort and venture into the country side.