Jamaican Agriculture Paradox: Abundant Food, Cheaper Imports

Martin Beckford, of Grange Hill, checks seedlings on his farm before digging yams for the market. Beckford said one of Jamaica's greatest assets is the soil and the ability to grow healthy food. He runs a medium-sized farm and employs two to four people depending on the season. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Beckford harvests sorrel, an herb used to make a popular Jamaican drink, on his farm in Westmoreland Parish. Sorrel is exported to the United States, Canada, and other Caribbean nations. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Pamela Hines makes a necklace at her roadside craft shop in Negril. To make ends meet, Hines also sells local vegetables. She refuses to sell foreign products and has vegetables delivered from St. Elizabeth Parish every Monday. "If they don't import so much foreign veg it would be better for us," she said. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Oral Rayson milks a cow on his now-defunct dairy farm in Westmoreland Parish. Rayson was forced out of business by competition from imported powder milk. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Rayson leads a blind calf to its surrogate mother so it can feed. Rayson, who once had a large herd of cattle, is selling them off one by one to survive. He is now down to about 45 cows. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Rayson spends the entire day with his cows. He loves his animals and has a name for each cow. "Dairy farming is the best because you get product out of the animal and you don't have to kill it," Rayson said. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Ray Woodson Blake feeds the goats at the farm where he works in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland Parish. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Blake said the production costs for raising goats are high. "Sometimes we feel the pinch from the cheaper (foreign) meat; sometimes it makes us suffer with our local goat meat," Blake said. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Blake enjoys his work and said he hopes the Jamaican government can help develop the farming economy to provide more opportunities for the nation's youth. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

A plate of ackee and saltfish, Jamaica's national dish. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Jamaica is known to many in the US as a tourist destination. Hotels feature picturesque views of the Caribbean Sea. Jamaicans express frustration that hotels don't do more to support local produce and instead import much of the food they prepare for tourists. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

Angela Dixon and her ten-year-old daughter, Bashy. pose for a picture in their yard in Grange Hill. Dixon’s husband is a farmer and they struggle to support five children on his small income. Image by Julia Rendleman. Jamaica, 2011.

In Jamaica there is a paradox: although the country has an abundant supply of fish, fruits and vegetables, its farmers are struggling to find financial success.

Cheap imported products are driving down costs and making local food production unprofitable. With nearly a fifth of working Jamaicans employed in the agriculture sector, the country has a lot at stake. Some, like dairy farmer Oral Rayson, have been forced to sell off their livestock and look for other work because they can't compete with the lower prices of foreign products.

What's more, Jamaicans spend about half of their income on food. Economists are worried that Jamaicans are increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations in the global marketplace as they rely more and more on foreign production of food.

Closing the doors on imported products is a complicated matter, in part because Jamaica's debt relief agreements bind the country to strict trade liberalizing policies. Jamaican political leaders are looking for ways to grow the agriculture economy and have drafted a comprehensive national development plan called "Vision 2030 Jamaica," which includes big plans for farming. Food security is a now a national priority.