Jamaica pushes export hopes with vegetables for US

Here on a gently rolling plain where primitive Arawak Indians once roamed, modern-day Jamaicans, with the help of Israeli technology and United States marketing, are putting together a vast farm empire.

As the first crop of ''winter'' tomatoes and sweet peppers is packaged for shipment to the US market, the potential of this joint Jamaican-Israeli venture is being glimpsed.

''Jamaica hopes to carve out a small but significant share of the $5 billion yearly produce purchases in the United States Northeast,'' says John Gabay, an official of the Jamaica National Investment Promotion (JNIP) agency.

Mr. Gabay's hope is already well advanced. This farm, a scant 30 miles from Kingston, the Jamaican capital, has begun to ship vegetables to the US during the current winter season, when many domestic US farms are not producing these crops.

Moreover, ''the possibility for an expanding share of the growing produce market on the US mainland is real,'' says Sandy Sokolow, a Florida produce broker.

If that happens, as more and more Jamaicans believe, it will mark a major change in the agricultural economy here. Traditionally, sugar and bananas, with high-grade Blue Mountain coffee, have dominated agriculture. This is changing, and there is some expectation that winter vegetables will not only equal, but surpass, other agricultural products in volume and dollar earnings.

''This could be a $50 million yearly industry in a short time,'' Mr. Gabay says.

The two-year-old government of Prime Minister Edward Seaga believes that Jamaica's sunny, tropical climate, its even temperature, and the island's moderate rainfall combine to make the island ideal for a variety of agricultural projects.

This project at Spring Plain, with its 1,025 acres, is typical. It relies on all of Jamaica's natural advantages. But with Israeli agricultural expertise, it also uses fertilizers, drip irrigation, and harvesting techniques that promise to make the yields on the acreage some of the best in the Caribbean. It is also going to be possible to get at least two crop cycles a year off the land.

The technology underlying the project is some of the most advanced in the world - and the Israelis who are here as partners of the Jamaican owners of the land have had plenty of experience with it elsewhere.

They are clearly determined to make this sprawling facility a success. Yields are already higher than anticipated, although it will take several seasons to work out such problems as tomato sizing, optimum harvest schedules, and the like.

But ''this location is ideal for winter vegetables,'' says Eli Tessona, one of the Israeli agronomists. ''The soil is good, and with fertilizers its potential is large.''

The water for irrigation flows abundantly from the Manchester Hills, a ridge of 3,000-foot mountains lying to the west of Spring Plain, and the Israelis are putting it to good use.

The land is owned by Jeffery and Dennis Lawson, two Jamaican brothers who are in the construction business in Kingston.

If he had tried to develop the land for agriculture by himself, Jeffery says, ''I would have stumbled, pitched myself up,'' a Jamaican way of saying he wouldn't have been able to do as well as the Israelis are doing.

The whole project is being watched closely. It is a key experiment in Prime Minister Seaga's goal of making Jamaica not only self-sufficient in agriculture, but of turning Jamaica into a significant exporter of food products. There are major byproducts of the effort, too - not the least being the employment of hundreds of unskilled, jobless Jamaicans.

More than 400 men and women are in the fields at the moment - doing everything from planting tomato seedlings, obtained from Florida, to carefully weeding the site. Many, if not all, are previously unemployed Jamaicans. The work is seasonal - but the income they derive will help them over otherwise lean months.

Mr. Gabay, who is the JNIP's promotion officer on the facility, speaks also of using machinery, such as irrigation pumps, that have been in warehouses and storage facilities for years. Thanks to an Italian foreign aid gift of these pumps during the previous government of Prime Minister Michael Manley, it was not necessary to buy new pumps.

The point is significant, for the Seaga government is attempting to utilize just about everything on the island in a determined effort to bring Jamaica back from the edge of bankruptcy and to make it something of a showcase in the Caribbean.

In the agricultural sphere, it will take a lot of farms like the one at Spring Plain to do that, but the example of this facility is having its effect across the island. Many farmers whose present yields are relatively modest are beginning to seek help from the Seaga government's Agriculture Ministry, and from new agencies like the JNIP.

At the same time, government officials are scanning the island for large landholdings like that of the Lawson brothers at Spring Plain that could be put to use in the same way that this site has been.

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