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A sticky problem as yam market grows

Rural folks are earning $2 billion annually from supplying young trees used as yam sticks, but it comes at a cost, says President of the Jamaica Agricultural Association Lenworth Fulton.

“Jamaica could be losing 37 million young trees yearly to yam cultivation,” he said.

But the latter issue, though concerning in an era of climate resilience and the push for sustainable economic activity, is not front of mind in the yam-growing sector. Cost is as well as the availability of what is for them an essential planting aid-sticks for yam vines.

With supply being an issue, the price of sticks keeps rising, and that in turn has driven production costs higher amid growth in the sector.

Yam production has doubled in the last decade to record highs. For yam farmers the stick is only one element of the cost of business, which keeps rising.

Last year, Jamaica’s farmers produced 210.8 tonnes of yam from 11,238 hectares, with yields varying according to variety. That’s up from 100.3 tonnes in 2012, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Mining data show.

Farmers mainly grow yellow yam, which is in heaviest demand, as well as some soft white yams, such as sweet yam and negro yam, said Fulton.

Yellow yam is commercially grown in 10 parishes, principally Trelawny, Manchester and St Ann. The tuber’s peak production occurs during the period January to May each year.

Information from affiliated entities, Rural Agricultural Development Authority, RADA, the agriculture ministry, and Jamaica Agricultural Society indicates that yam sticks used in yam hills once cost $40, each but are now priced at $100 each, not including transport.

A female farmer in Litchfield, Trelawny who has been working in the area since 2018 told the Financial Gleaner that in order to achieve production of 2,000 hills or banks of yam, she spends “roughly $550,000 for yam sticks, labourers and lunch provided to workers”. Production averages 10-15 pounds per hill, which is equivalent to 4.54 kg to 6.8 kg per hill.

The Litchfield farmer supplies yams mainly to vendors who sell at Coronation Market in Kingston. The farmgate price fluctuates weekly, although production prices are rising consistently, she said.

A year ago, yam growers were earning $150 to $180 per pound for their yam. Now, the general farmgate price is averaging $250, said RADA Senior Agronomist Loxley Waites. But it’s coming from a high of $350 to $400 per pound reached earlier this year, growers said.

The Litchfield farmer said she was unsure of the reasons for the fluctuation, but noted that she and her peers suspect that exporters of the tuber were influential.

Roughly $5 billion worth of yams is exported annually, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, most of which is consumed by the United States.

The Litchfield farmer said that when pricing falls below $300 she begins to lose money and cannot cover all her costs. In addition to paying $100 for each yam stick, she pays $25 per stick for transport and the same amount to plant each one – totalling $150 is the cost per stick.

At the industry level, “The estimated cost to cut and transport sticks is $1.5 billion,” said Fulton of the JAS. “This is earning to rural folks, plus cost to dig the mounds at about $6,500 per 100 hills, costing about $2.4 billion annually,” he said.

However, the JAS president believes that for environmental purposes a substitute must be found for yam sticks, notwithstanding its economic value to rural Jamaica.

He cited alternatives, such as the use of trellis systems to expose the yam leaves to sunlight, or artificial sticks line made from PVC pipes or other forms of reusable plastic rods. Some farmers in Trelawny and Hanover use bamboo.

“In any case, Jamaica can’t afford to sacrifice carbon sequestration by losing so many young trees for yam production, although we need the yams for local consumption and export,” Fulton said.

However, growers of the tuber, including the farmer in Litchfield, are more concerned about the volatility of yam prices. They have been thinking about forming an association for better representation and lobbying.

“There is no representative for crops like yams, but an effort is ongoing by JAS to develop a yam and tuber group that will a place on the JAS national board,” Fulton confirmed.

The concept is not unusual as other crops have representative groups. These include onion and irish potato growers via RADA, the All-island Banana Growers Association, the All-Island Cane Farmers Association, the Small Ruminants Association representing livestock growers, and a cattle breeder’s society – all of which representation on the JAS national board working through JAS and RADA marketing officers that link farmers and buyers.

Farmers were of the view that exporters – so-called middlemen who buy from growers and supply markets overseas – are the ones controlling farmgate price, but the JAS did not comment on this.

Last year, Jamaican traders sold $5.8 billion worth of yam to foreign markets, around $4.6 billion of which was supplied to the United States.

As to the stick supply issue, Jamaica’s primary environmental watchdog said one of the solutions is for farmers to grow saplings for yam sticks instead of laying waste to vulnerable areas.

“The felling of small trees for yam sticks is a major problem in Jamaica, with indigenous forest trees being the preferred species for yam sticks, which is an important requirement for yam production,” National Environment & protection Agency, NEPA, said in comments to the Financial Gleaner.

“The harvesting of yam sticks threatens biodiversity through habitat loss and removal of endangered plant species. Deforestation compromises the function of watersheds through loss of groundwater recharge, flooding and water pollution. Additionally, the removal of trees also makes the forest more susceptible to the establishment of invasive species, example, bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris), which would be displacing native species and destabilising mountain slopes,” NEPA said.

Instead of cutting down young trees, the farmers should consult with the Forestry Department on procurement of seedlings to grow their own sticks, NEPA said.

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