Agriculture has been an important activity in Jamaica from as early as the seventeenth century. The first European colonizers planted produce which would not grow in Europe but thrived in the Caribbean such as sugar cane, cotton, cocoa and coffee. These crops were grown solely for export.
Before the Europeans arrived crops such as corn (maize), Jamaican cassava (manioc), yams, beans, cotton and tobacco were grown by the native Arawak and Carib tribes. They utilized the slash and burn method, (i.e. the cutting down of forests, burning of the trash, and planting in the burnt-out area). But, since there was no way to store the produce, the crops were grown purely on a subsistence level.
Storage of crops grown by small scale farmers in Jamaica, with the exception of corn, was alien to the Indian cultivation system. Crops were simply left on the ground and collected when necessary. The Europeans introduced harvesting of food crops at particular periods and the idea of commercial Jamaica agriculture. This concept has lasted to the present day.
After colonization most of the fertile lands in Jamaica were used for plantation crops. Most of the food for people on the plantations was imported. Salted meat and flour for the planters and salted fish for the slaves were brought in from places such as England and Canada. In Jamaica portions of the land were also set aside for the slaves to cultivate their own plots of land, producing crops of yam, okra, dasheen and plantain for their own use.
Thus, the pattern set more than two hundred years ago has continued until today with very little change. Jamaica still grows crops such as sugar, cocoa and coffee for export to metropolitan countries, and the poorer Jamaican agricultural lands are still used to produce subsistence crops such as tomatoes, maize, peas etc.
Several factors have contributed to determining where crops are grown in Jamaica and with what success. Among these factors are temperatures, rainfall, the type and fertility of soils, insect and plant infestation and natural hazards. Let us look more closely at these factors.
Jamaica Climate (Temperatures)
Jamaica lies between 1° N and the Tropic of Cancer (23- °N). This means that they are all tropical countries and temperatures are high all through the year. In Jamaica, mean monthly temperatures range from 23°C to 30°C this is an average range, temperatures vary from 20°C to 30°C. Jamaica is characterized by high daytime temperatures of about 32°C, particularly inland, where there is less influence from the sea breezes found near the coast.
Jamaica shows very small variations in temperature although distances as much as 3000 kilometers may separate the most northerly from the most southerly regions. Since most mountains are not high, frost is almost unknown however there is a lot of fog and mist in the more hilly regions.
Since plants found in Jamaica need heat for satisfactory growth, they grow very quickly. Warm temperatures also affect other aspects of plant growth. They encourage the germination of seeds and the decay of leaves to form humus, and actual temperatures help to determine the number and type of bacteria in the soil.
The uniformity of temperature has one major drawback as far as Jamaica agriculture is concerned. Only tropical or heat-loving plants grow well. This means that most of Jamaica is equipped to grow the same type of crops and this is a serious handicap to inter-regional trade.
Rainfall in Jamaica
Rainfall is another factor influencing the type of crops grown by Jamaica farmers. Expensive drainage schemes have to be undertaken when there is too much water in an area such as the coastlands of Jamaica. When there is too little rain then irrigation becomes necessary if agriculture is to be successful.
Many areas in Jamaica have long periods of drought. The relatively flat areas in Jamaica have low mean annual rainfalls of 1150 mm and 1520 mm respectively. Most of this rain falls from June to November leaving half the year with very little rain. This prolonged dry period usually has quite harmful effects on plants such as sugar cane, where the yield per hectare is lessened. Even more harmful is that vegetation on hillsides becomes parched and dry, leading to extensive bush fires, and the resultant flooding in the lowlands when the rains do arrive.
The 1997 dry season in Jamaica provides a good example. January to late April, 1983 was one of the driest periods in the last twenty years. This was followed by a period of unusually high rainfall throughout May and June. Soils on hillsides made bare by forest fires with the result that Jamaican farmers claimed losses of over $10 million in vegetable crops, and whole districts were under water for days.
Agricultural industry in Jamaica crops tends to have specific water requirements if they are to grow well. A look at some of the crops grown in Jamaica will illustrate this.
Jamaica sugar cane requires plenty of water is needed, particularly in the early growing period. Between May and August, 1200 mm of rainfall is normally necessary. Jamaica cocoa also requires rain is all year round. At least 2000 mm of rainfall is necessary. Jamaican bananas like cocoa need total rainfall, that is well distributed throughout the year, of about 2000 mm. Maize (Corn) crop needs an annual rainfall of at least 750 mm, most of which must fall during the growing season.
Jamaica rice needs at least 2000 mm of rainfall per year, with at least 120 mm falling in each month of the growing season. Where conditions are very hot, more rainfall or water may be necessary in the growing period to maintain the required water level. Although other climatic factors such as winds and cloud cover play a part in the determination of which crops are grown, the non-arrival of seasonal rains is a cause of real worry to a number of Jamaican farmers, and crop yields are closely tied to the amounts and intensity of rainfall.