Words and Photos Liz Solms
The soil in Jamaica is the color of fire. A deep, rusty red that stains anything it touches with a ruddy, healthy tint. You can tell who the farmers are in St. Elizabeth, the parish where I live. You know them by the brick red pigment so engrained in their feet and hands it has become the color of their skin.
These are people who spend most of the day in bird-like positions, crouching with machete in hand, bending over row after row of watermelon, watering the plants with just a cup dipped into an old oil drum full of rainwater. These are people whose fathers and mothers were farmers, and grandparents too, people who use hand tools and pray for rain. Farmers in Jamaica know that their hot red soil is electric—when a seed is sown in St. Elizabeth, a plant emerges as if it were just wished alive. But these small farmers are poor folks, hanging on to an agrarian livelihood that no longer provides as abundantly as it once did. The machete has been replaced by the machine, and imported produce floods the Jamaican market at cheaper prices than the vegetables grown locally. Wandering through one of the new air conditioned supermarkets in Junction, an outpost town in St. Elizabeth, I see Jamaican mothers touching and smelling carrots grown in the United States, checking the slender orange vegetables for bruises and marks, now examining these foreign-grown foods with the same care they took while bargaining at the traditional outdoor markets that used to line Junction’s streets. Now there are but a few hagglers in Junction who sell what is grown on local farms that exist just yards outside of town. They sit outside of the supermarkets, just a few women weighing out peppers and onions on old balance scales, for a waiting line of few.
Jamaica’s small farmers are consistently marginalized by large industrial farms and foreign imports, causing a great loss not only of local agricultural economy, but also of traditional and sustainable farming practices. Those who are left to carry on the tradition of farming have forgotten where they came from—a place of intrinsic, time-honored knowledge where any grandmother could tell you how to keep those persistent pests away by sprinkling a little garlic water here and there, or leaving an open bottle of Red Stripe in the cabbage patch. Instead, Jamaican farmers today now use potent and poisonous chemicals to ward off pests and disease, trading traditional wisdom for the quick—yet toxic—fix of chemical farming. These are poor people hanging on to a way of life—a flailing, desperate attempt to produce the most food possible in the shortest period of time just to remain in some semblance of competition with the apples that are flown in from Washington State, or the Georgia-grown carrots now familiar to those Jamaican mothers perusing the aisles of new fangled Jamaican supermarkets popping up across the Island. Many of the chemicals that end up on Jamaican soil are banned in the United States. Gromazone, a weedkiller that leaves one’s farm with the appearance of a burned out nuclear wasteland, is so potent it has left a legacy across the Island that includes everything from bodily deformities, to the name of a particularly aggressive DJ who proves his ferocity on the turn tables by adopting the moniker of the well known weed killer. The environment has suffered immeasurably under the impact of such chemical fertilizers and pesticides, causing severe ecological problems such as polluting of the water table, and widespread soil toxicity. But most importantly, this current paradigm of farming has created a dire reliance on chemical agriculture that has caused the farmers, the very keepers of the earth, to poison and destroy the land that must sustain them.
As if the addition of chemicals to such rich, red earth was not enough to completely exhaust the integrity of Jamaica’s local agriculture, a major extraction on behalf of large multi-national bauxite companies has further depleted the virility of Jamaica’s hallowed land. Bauxite, the very mineral that dyes Jamaica’s dirt its brilliant color and electrifies each planted seed, is the Island’s largest export, an essential component in the production of aluminium. But that famous red dirt without the bauxite is like consuming food that has been extracted of every beneficial nutrient—it may look like food and taste like food but one may as well be swallowing, simply, air. Very few crops can grow on land that has been mined for bauxite, especially without chemical assistance. Bauxite may be a profitable export for Jamaica, but at what cost?
There are very few entities in Jamaica that exist to combat such systems of simultaneous extraction and importation—the bauxite leaves the Island and foreign products flood the market, making it nearly impossible for native Jamaicans to sell good, clean food grown in healthy soil to their very own people. But though there are few organized efforts to oppose the current state of agriculture in Jamaica, the tiny movement is fierce. In 2005, I moved to St. Elizabeth, the “breadbasket” of Jamaica as it is called, to initiate an organic grower’s cooperative. To convince a poor farmer to abandon the chemicals which make his tomato seeds sprout freakishly from the ground for organic farming practices that may take twice as long to produce results, is like coaching someone to enter an unhealthy relationship. But persistence, patience, and the physical proof that organic is healthier, safer, and most importantly demands a higher price point, gave way to the Treasure Beach Ital Farmers Association, a group of dedicated organic farmers who are among the most progressive—and profitable— farmers in the region. The farmer’s association would not have been possible without the support of direct sales outlets such as Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost Hotels, small boutique hotels on the Island dedicated to purchasing locally, shunning most foreign produce even if it does come at a cheaper price. Most recently two other organizations were founded in response to Jamaica’s current agricultural crisis. The Organic Initiative for a Sustainable Caribbean (OIC), a non-profit organization founded in 2007, provides farmers with comprehensive training in organic agriculture, establishes a market for the farmers’ products, and equips rural farmers in the Caribbean with the necessary skills to create and maintain sound, sustainable farms and businesses. At its core, OIC maintains that organic agriculture is not just about cultivating clean and pure food, but fostering healthy relationships and communities in the Caribbean. In addition to OIC, Breadfruit Trading Company, a sustainable food production and consulting business, was recently established to provide an outlet for strictly small farmers to produce organic cassava chips, an indigenous root vegetable that tastes similar to a potato chip but bears far more nutritional benefits. Not to mention the opportunities created for small farmers to grow clean food without chemicals to a guaranteed market. Organizations like OIC and businesses such as Breadfruit Trading Company are the future of food in Jamaica, two small but compelling solutions to the pervasive agricultural system that exists on the Island today, one that has little to do with nature anymore at all.