Canadian-funded PROPEL project backing Khemwattie Ramnarine’s growing shade house farming venture

It may take some time before efforts to focus the attention of women and young people on agriculture as an entrepreneurial option take traction, but Marissa Lowden, Gender Equity and Youth and Marketing Programme Officer for the Canadian-funded Promotion of Regional Opportunities for Produce through Enterprises and Linkages (PROPEL) believes that satisfying progress is being made.

A measure of the success of the PROPEL project in pursuit of its objective of popularizing farming as a business venture in the face of various other more ‘attractive’ options reposes in the fact that the initial target of taking it to 120 women and young people has been exceeded. The number of adherents stands at around 200.

As the project grows, the participating women and young people are raising their farming pursuits to a level where entrepreneurial ventures are taking shape. Financial returns from the farms are beginning to make a difference at the level of the family.

Khemwattie Ramnarine watering plants in the nursery section of the shade house
Khemwattie Ramnarine watering plants in the nursery section of the shade house

The objective of PROPEL is to increase the volume of Caribbean fresh produce accessing high-value markets (HVMs) in the Caribbean and internationally. What PROPEL seeks to realize are enhanced market collaboration among private sector buyers and producers and government and private sector institutions, increased access by these producers to national, regional and international HVMs, increased capacity to meet the quality, quantity and safety standards set by HVMs and enhanced knowledge and capacity among the agro-entrepreneurs to establish and operate businesses equipped to serve HVMs.

Last Saturday, Stabroek Business, visited the farm of 58-year-old Khemwattie Ramnarine, a sturdy-looking resident of Perseverance Village on the Essequibo Coast. She had begun with a small kitchen garden, cultivating lettuce and celery for home use. Over time, her production expanded to modest commercial quantities and her initial target markets included neighbours and other residents of the community.

In 2005 Khemwattie expanded her farming operation, embracing shallot, mustard, pak choy, tomato and carilla amongst her range of produce. Significantly increased volumes of produce meant that she could now venture into a wholesale operation at the Suddie and Anna Regina markets.

Over time, Khemwattie has embraced the shade house method of cultivation and has, in the process, ‘graduated’ to a small commercial flower-cultivation initiative. Flower plants, she says, sell well in the period leading to Christmas.

The two shade houses that comprise the venture are situated behind her dwelling house. Even from a distance it appears to be thriving. Twice a week, she reaps a variety of vegetables. Thursday is market day at Bush Lot and that is where she heads with much of her produce. What is reaped on the weekend is taken to market at Suddie.

The returns are still modest but Khemwattie is watching them grow. For now, they are sufficient to pay her bills including her farm hands’ wages. Each market day she sells about $5,000 worth of lettuce, $3,000 worth of mustard calaloo, shallot and celery and $5,000 worth of tomato. Pak choy is her best seller. Her returns from the vegetable can go as high as $10,000. She places a high priority on not returning home with produce, resorting, if necessary to slashing prices and ‘flatfooting’ her way through the markets until little or nothing is left.

Over time, other members of the family, her grandson Avinash, her son Hemraj and her daughter-in-law Seewattie have all been pressed into service in what appears to be an efficient family operation. Support is also forthcoming from a neighbour, who, inspired by Khemwattie’s initiative, supports the venture by removing weeds and watering produce planted in the ground.

Business is steady rather than spectacular. Her earnings had allowed her to meet the medical expenses of her husband prior his death last year. She talks about the support he provided when he was alive and about the absence of companionship. When she misses him most, she says, she throws herself into her farming.

An additional shade house, 100 x 27 feet, is currently being erected. She was first introduced to that method of farming by a relative. Her first shade house was more-or-less a makeshift initiative. The current one is being constructed using insights she secured during an August 2014 fact-finding trip to Jamaica. While the support of her grandson has helped to reduce the labour costs, Khemwattie says, nonetheless, that it is an expensive venture. The observation was not a complaint. She has already seen the fruits of her labour.

Her visit to Jamaica was facilitated by the PROPEL project. She has learnt, among other things, effective water-control methods in shade house farming including the installation methods for the network of pipes used in the process. Holes are placed at strategic points in the pipes along the plant beds, allowing the plants to be watered when the system is turned on. It is both an efficient and labour-saving method of watering.

Her experience in Jamaica has allowed her to infuse novel methods into her own operation including a highly efficient rope-driven method of suspending tomato plants from the ground without the threat of damage associated with acute leaning.

Water has become a considerable challenge. The canal that she depends on has become compromised with weed that restrains the flow. It has not been cleaned in years. Pollution has meant that she has to pursue other options. She depends on a mix of well water and the rain.

Three years ago she was forced to halt her farming operation for about six months as a result of plant disease. She credits the Ministry of Agriculture with identifying and solving the problem. In 2008, the family relocated to another house in the same community where more land was available.

It was after she had relocated that the idea of a shade house was mooted. The initial setting up cost was around $400,000, but, she says, some of the benefits were immediate, one of which was the vital protection the structure provided for the crops particularly during protracted periods of rainy weather.

Setting aside the success of the business venture, Khemwattie says she is invigorated by her intimacy with her farm. She contemplates the continuity of the venture beyond her own physical capability. In that regard, she appears to have monumental confidence in her son and his family.

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