In Jamaica, a backyard farming movement has sprung up from the pandemic

Miss Tiny guides me through the vegetation of her small Manchester property in west-central Jamaica, glancing back every few seconds as she weaves her way through the foliage strewn amid of bright orange soil.

Her tiny body belies her strength.

For twenty years, and throughout the pandemic, the 83-year-old woman who commands just over four and a half feet has been the primary caregiver for her large family of 13 children and grandchildren, living on shared property, distributed in three small houses.

She tells me about the time when she worked as a farmer alongside her husband, who passed away, leaving her with memories of many years and in-depth knowledge of how to grow her own food.

Optimistic, Miss Tiny explains that there have been some upsides during the pandemic.

The money his family received from Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MLSS) and world food program (WFP) through a COVID-19 relief program is now being used to improve old lumber and galvanize outbuildings on his property, and his large family has benefited from 40 pounds of essential groceries, including rice, peas, oil, noodles and salt provided by MLSS and WFP.

Most gratifying, however, is that throughout the pandemic, his family has been able to couple their food aid to the harvests of food crops scattered throughout their property – dasheen, ackees, star apples, bananas, greens and a filthy chicken coop. Despite meager financial means, some might say that Miss Tiny is richer than many.

And she is not alone.

During the pandemic, many Jamaicans have responded to movement restrictions and reduced income flows by turning to backyard farming for food security and stress relief.

A multi-stage regional survey conducted by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the World Food Program in August 2022 found that 15% of households in the region are currently engaged in agriculture for consumption. In the case of Jamaica, the growth of backyard agriculture emerged in the context of the social protection that was provided to the most vulnerable, helping to bring relief on many fronts during the economic downturn.

According to the February 2022 installment of the CARICOM-WFP survey, 57% of Jamaicans experienced income disruptions due to the pandemic – the third highest rate in the region, after Trinidad and Tobago and St. Lucia, the number of people being estimated to live. – precariousness doubling to 400,000 – about 13% of the population.

In February 2021, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) under then Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Floyd Green, began distributing backyard farming kits throughout Jamaica. The kits contained assorted seeds, which included okra, tomato, peas, beans, carrot, onion, cabbage, callaloo, bell pepper and green onion, seedling tray , a mixture and fertilizer to support and promote the growing movement.

“We encourage Jamaicans to dedicate space in their backyards for the production of two to four vegetable crops per year,” Green said. “We want Jamaicans to be directly involved in growing their own food and we are seizing the opportunity that has arisen because of COVID-19.”

At the time, more than 2,500 kits were distributed.

And while social media can be seen as an indicator of popular sentiment, several Jamaican pages on backyard farming started popping up simultaneously in 2020. One, titled Backyard Gardens 2020, has over four thousand followers and publishes an average of 8 publications per day.

The movement was a welcome development against the backdrop of an almost exclusive reliance on foreign foods.

According to Statistical Institute of Jamaica, Jamaica imported $3,079.6 million worth of food between 2019 and 2021, the vast majority of which came from the United States, to supply the tourism and catering sector and a population of just under 3 million people. With the impact of COVID-19 global supply shocks on food stocks and prices, and with the movement restrictions and job losses experienced during the pandemic, the circumstances were very favorable for a transition to local food.

Backyard agriculture has enhanced Jamaica’s food security by encouraging citizens to grow and consume their own food, thereby reducing costs, while improving their nutrition, health and well-being, and is consistent to Jamaica’s vision for 2030.

The movement has had a positive impact on the community, alleviating food insecurity and supporting economic development.

Just up the hill from Miss Tiny, in an area called Harmons, live the Barnes brothers – Hubert, John and Wilson. None are officially employed, and one is blind, leaving them without the means to regularly pay their monthly bills.

But what the brothers lack in financial means, they make up for in food and generosity.

Hubert Barnes proudly points to the three acres on which he and his brothers have devoted their sustenance and livelihood.

“Plantains, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, yams, coconuts, sugar…” He goes on to describe how the crops grown on their property perfectly accompanied the large sacks of flour and rice they purchased with the COVID assistance that received from MLSS and PAM.

“I will plant it to profit from it… Not to sell it”, he continues.

The brothers emphasize that they are happy to give community members food from their property and only sell “when necessary”, from a financial point of view.

Jamaica provides an excellent case study of the effective use of social protection systems in response to crisis. Many vulnerable individuals and families across the country have benefited from food and cash assistance provided during COVID-19 by the Jamaican government through the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), the Planning Institute of Jamaica and the Ministry of Labor and Social Services (MLSS) with support from the World Food Programme.

But some of the most inspiring stories over the past two years have been those of self-sufficiency, especially in contexts where social protection was used as a supplementary source of income rather than the sole source of income.

In some cases, social protection has been used to help scale up backyard farms, as in the case of Bearyl Tingle, a 70-year-old working woman from Clarendon who used MLSS-PAM assistance to expand his pre-existing chicken coop. By reinvesting in her chicken business, she was able to keep food on the table and send her niece to college.

“Survival is key,” she said.

“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it, and as we drive and seek to improve production, we seek not only to continue to increase in terms of growth, but to waste less. So every inch of land will be used more efficiently…,” Agriculture Minister Pearnel Charles Junior said as he promoted agricultural efficiency and self-sufficiency at an event in April 2022 to launch the Jamaican “Grow Smart, Eat Smart” campaign, with the tagline— Food safety is everyone’s business.

Also launched in 2022, at the University of the West Indies Caribbean School of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) Mona Jamaica Campus, the Plant it Fi Save it educated and provided the community with tools for backyard farming with the support of Jamaica 4-H Clubs (the youth branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) and Farm Up Jamaica.

In addition to promoting self-sufficiency, the backyard farming movement has given young people the opportunity to transcend outdated notions of farming, incorporating technology, resilience and independence into what was once seen as the domain of the “old and poor”.

In March 2022, Dr. Derrick Deslandes, President of the Jamaica Dairy Development Council (JDDB) pointed out that the use of technology in backyard farming has given the nation the opportunity to overcome traditional barriers to starting farming.

“Today, family farming is not what it used to be,” he said. “Now you have container gardening; rooftop gardening systems; you can automate your garden; you can create hydroponic systems, small systems that can produce lettuce, tomatoes, and a whole host of things. We need to start encouraging and showing people [how].”

Across Jamaica’s public and private sector, the call has gone out to the community: grow what you eat and eat what you grow.

It’s never been easier…or more necessary.

About Keneth T. Graves

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