My daughter Jinaki likes to go to the grocery with me, in part because she likes riding on the shopping carts and in part because she likes to chat with random people.
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Everybody planting same thing
Last week this column touched on the gradual disappearance of indigenous fruits from our lives. An appropriate corollary to that perspective is an examination of our jokey agriculture sector. First though, an observation on the alarming spike in fast-food consumption. It has become apparent that the time-honoured tradition of “Sunday lunch” is also beginning to fade. Who could have imagined that fast-food joints peddling boring vittles would actually be packing them in on a Sunday?
I saw a French chef on television saying “You can’t force people to go into the kitchen, you have to inspire them…” A visit to our farmers’ markets, at least for me, only inspires a desire to give up and buy a burger. I’m no purist, but I tend to get irritated when encountering everything from haberdashery to pirate DVDs in the market. Guys, newsflash here: if you are buying cologne in the market, you gat no game!
The real problem in the markets is the depressing sameness and the dreadful quality of the available produce. It is not unusual to go from one market to the next to be confronted by heaps of fresh herbs. Vendors sitting side by side, all selling bundles of chadon beni, Spanish thyme and parsley. Come on, man! Even drug dealers know to space themselves out.
The story of vegetables is much the same. Mountains and mountains of lettuce. Behind them a small, elderly woman is fussing with a woven basket at her feet. What do you think she is doing? That’s right, she’s bundling more bloody lettuce! Others are selling those tiny dry tomatoes. Everywhere else it is baigan, ochro and pimento peppers in yuh skin!
Farmers in this country, for the most part, stick with short crops for the fast money. Consequently, there is no diversity in the fare being churned out by the agriculture sector. Additionally, they do it so poorly that their goods will only be purchased by people who think that a cauliflower is supposed to be the size of an actual flower.
It is entirely conceivable that some entity at one time or another has tried to convey the importance of proper marketing to local farmers, but our farmers are an independent bunch. By independent I mean they don’t really care what anyone has to say. That’s why when purchasing ginger in the market you have to clean it, not with a washcloth but a chisel, for all the dirt has been left behind. Their job is to get the produce there, yours is to sort through the mud to find your dasheen.
Government mega-farms were meant in part to deal with this lack of diversity. Shockingly, they produced the same crops the farmers do, thereby competing with them! To this day they haven’t got the formula right and I was quite disappointed to hear that the focus is now onions and carrots.
We pride ourselves on being able to consume peppers so fiery they would corrode the oesophageal lining of lesser mortals. I’ve actually seen people eating food, then taking a bite out of a hot pepper as if it were a pickle. We invented a pepper concoction cheekily named “mother-in-law” which is out of this world.
Yet our local manufacturing industry, which produces pepper sauce, is only able to count on a mere fraction of its pepper input from local farmers. The rest is imported as pepper mash from other countries. It’s not that Matouk’s does not want local peppers; the local sector simply cannot meet the demand. This country boasts of having the hottest pepper on the planet, the scorpion pepper, yet the rest of the world is more familiar with India’s “ghost pepper.”
Spanish oil firm Repsol piloted an innovative scheme in the Mayaro area to encourage greenhouse farming. While it is still in its nascent stages, this concept, which began with sweet peppers, seems to be ably tackling issues of land space, pest control and quality control. Farmers chosen for this project do not use the chemicals deployed by the rest of the sector. Their techniques are the latest advances in agricultural science.
The rest of the farming community routinely applies an expensive, toxic cocktail of pesticides that probably comes very close to the Agent Orange used in the Vietnam war. More importantly, Repsol has negotiated with a major distributor to purchase all of their sweet peppers, a consistent market for a high-quality product. The Ministry of Agriculture under Vasant Bharath was attempting to create a farmers’ registry so that an appreciation could be had for who was growing what.
Farmers felt this was too intrusive; a fear of having to pay taxes was probably responsible for their discomfort. Suffice it to say while the Government has to shoulder some blame for the poor state of agriculture and in this country, local farmers must provide the other shoulder. What should a disappointed consumer do? Just go to the nearest chicken joint, I suppose.