Government to audit and rezone lands for agriculture, development — Charles Jr

IN the wake of controversy surrounding the use of agricultural lands, previously under sugar cane production, for housing development Pearnel Charles Jr, the minister of agriculture and fisheries, says a comprehensive land audit is to be carried out to determine which lands are to be used for various activities in the country.

Charles Jr, who made the revelation at a recent Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, said it was a topic that was discussed at a strategic retreat which his ministry had recently.

“The agricultural census is something that was brought up multiple times, and it is something which we are now discussing and exploring at the ministry to see how we can get the submission together to advance the operations for,” he told journalists.

Charles Jr said alot of the arguments that were being made recently about agricultural lands being diverted for housing are nothing but misinformation. He however admits that while there has been interest in using some marginal lands for housing development, no agricultural land has been transferred for housing development.

That aside, he hinted that some lands which were previously used or zoned for agriculture could be reclassified.

“This Government that Andrew Holness leads is determined to evaluate all of our lands and to ensure the best use of it. If there is currently land that is zoned for housing that is ideal for agriculture, it is likely that it will be transferred for agricultural use. If there is land that is now currently in agriculture that would be best or ideal for housing, it is likely that it will be used for housing,” he continued.

The minister said the audit is to inform efforts for the country to grow smart and eat smart.

“What are the critical components of grow smart,” he asked rhetorically ahead of continuing, “To grow smart, you have to have a hyper focus on research and development. So we are discussing soil fertility, we are looking at pH water balance, we are looking on exploring clean seeds and looking at a seed banks — not just seed storage, seed banks — which is a totally different discussion. We are talking about an area where you have consistent, mechanised modern vaults to protect your seeds and we are looking at being that hub for the Caribbean. We are looking at germ plasm and other areas to bring the science and technology that is required.” he added.

Charles Jr said with climate change proving a challenge to agriculture in Jamaica, considerations will be given to introducing concepts such as contouring on hillsides to reduce soil erosion, especially since Jamaica is more than 70 per cent hilly, with many farmers practising their craft in these regions.

He said his ministry is also pushing for farmers to introduce more technology and to find more innovative ways to boost production.

“We have been speaking to some of the strategic partners in the sector to see how they can use technology such as drones,” he said before noting that he knows at least two people who are using drones and it results in them using much less pesticides and chemicals because it helps them to monitor their fields more effectively.

Orville Palmer, chief technical director in the ministry of agriculture and fisheries, said efforts are also being made to mitigate some of the issues which contribute to low agricultural output and thus give a more expensive produce in Jamaica.

“We often ask ourselves the question, ‘Why is it that Jamaican produce costs so much for our consumers?’. There are many things at play but one of the fundamental things is what we have to work with, which is our soil. Jamaican soils are unique and different from most other soils. Even in the Caribbean, you have soils which are of volcanic origin. Look back at Israel; you say that the Israelis do much better than us, their soil type is mainly sand. Now, in sandy soils the elements that you put in, being fertiliser, you get that back in your produce as long as you manage your irrigation flow correctly. In Jamaica, the parent material for our soil is limestone. Limestone is calcium. It means that our soil has a lot of calcium in it. It also means that the water we use to irrigate those soils also has high calcium levels. If you look at what is happening in southern Clarendon, those plains have a lot of saline soils which is a result of the high calcium level. Now, ideally a plant needs pH of about 6.5 and those areas have pH of way above 7.5,” Palmer said.

“What we are trying to do is remove the calcium from irrigation water, because everytime you are adding water to the soil, you adding more calcium. It is the same principle that is used in the greenhouse technology. They soften their water before they put it on. We have done an exercise at Bodles in an experiment with reducing the calcium in the water going onto the plant and what we have seen is a 50 per cent increase in production, just by managing the calcium, nothing else, and we will be rolling that out now with doing some pilot things with some farmers.”

Palmer said another plank of the grow smart programme is to find ways to reduce the cost of animal protein for Jamaicans.

“One of the largest cost ingredient going into that process is the feed. Now you have two types of animals, ruminants and non-ruminants. Ruminants they use grass, forage, but they still need about 16 per cent protein in that forage for them to do well. So, we have identified different grass species at Bodles that we are rolling out as we speak. So if you can produce this material at a lower cost, then the end product to the consumer would be lower. So we are using the Mombasa grass as a means of reducing the cost of protein to our consumer, going through the ruminants.”

“The highest cost in terms of shifting the end cost to consumer is feed and fertiliser. So when feed and fertiliser go up, you feel it the most. That’s why we are in a very deliberate way, focusing our research efforts on findings ways to have more local assets in our fertiliser and in our feed. And having the right grass for your cattle can be the difference you achieving 7 litres [of milk per day] and achieving 21 litres [of milk] from one cow,” added Charles Jr.

“It’s all about improving efficiencies. Just the difference in the texture and the digestibility of the grass can make a massive difference in how your goat or your cows grow.”

Altogether, Charles Jr said: “The effort is to have sustained affordable prices — and to do so is to ensure you are not shifted about by global events. Self sufficiency is grow smart. “

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