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Solar Powered Organic Farming for Jamaica’s Food Security

“Innovative Energy efficiency or renewable Energy solutions that have local or regional benefits, provide jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions”

Excerpt from the IDB’s 2012 IDEAS Energy Innovation Contest

Solar power, it seems, can do more than just make the plants grow, dry our clothes and beat us with the might of the God Hurracan when the Season start on July 1st every year. It can also be tamed in other ways aside from using photovoltaic (Solar Panels) and Solar Concentrators as our North Americans neighbours appear to have the land and financial wherewithal to achieve as chronicled in The American Race towards Alternative Energy.

After all, the most usable form of Solar Energy is in its raw form instead of converting it to Electricity as in the case of Digicel in my article Digicel Jamaica’s Alternative Energy Future – Increased Electricity Bills and Energy Sector Opportunities collide. And it does not need to be on a large scale as is the case of the CAN$450 million (US$444,200,000 million or JA$38,090,150,000.00 billion) plans of Solamon Energy Corp of Canada as noted in Solamon Energy Corporation to build Caribbean’s Largest Solar Plant – Jamaica to get a Green Energy Boost.

So some low-tech solutions to apply Solar Power to Agriculture and to the wider Jamaican society are required for Developing Nation countries such as Jamaica and our CARICOM neighbours. Even more helpful is if this can help to promote the idea of farming among the younger generation as being an efficient and not so labour intensive endeavour, while using “super cool” yet low-tech technology that is no to heavily dependent on Fossil Fuels.

More importantly, encouraging more young people to go into farming will guarantee our Food security, which is of paramount importance. This as Jamaica is one of the most import dependent countries in the Caribbean yet we have all the resources needed to do sustainable Farming without the need for fossil Fuel base inputs, such as pesticides. To this end, The Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Department for International Development, the Global Village Energy Partnership, and the South Korean Government has sponsored the IDEAS competition, with the aim of fostering innovation in Alternative Energy among Latin American Countries.

Three (3) awardees have been given funding to expand their usage of Solar Power and Renewable Energy in Farming that is sure to make more Jamaicans become more interested in Farming, as FarmVille JamaicaLive is doing as noted in Farmville Jamaica Live heralds the rise of Social Farming:

  1. The Family Garden, a Hydroponics Greenhouse Project run by the Harpers Family
  2. Caribbean ESCO Limited, a Fruit Drying Recycler run by founder and CEO Eaton Haughton
  3. Echos Consulting run by CEO Richard Mays whose Organic Waste Biogas Project coverts Organic waste to Electricity and sell it to the JPS Co Grid is

Each of these awardees received the following from the IDB’s IDEAS Competition to further implement and scale up their ideas:

  1. US$200,000 ($18 million)
  2. Technical Assistance
  3. Business Development Support and Further financing

Hydroponics – Modern Solar Powered Farming

The Harper Family Agricultural-star-up, The Family Garden, is a practical example of Hydroponics at its best. In their family garden setup, the pumps that are used are solar powered and the entire Greenhouse with water channeled and recovered by clever usage of PVC piping.

Family garden project, Jamaica, Hydroponic, Solar

The award from the IDB funded IDEAS Project will allow them to expand to up to twenty four (24) Greenhouses looked after by seven (7) farmers in the Jack’s Hill community in tandem with the Jack’s Hill Infant and Primary School. Distributed seedlings to the farmers will rotate back as crops reaped by the Harpers and sold for profit, the majority of which will go to the Jack’s Hill Infant and Primary School.

Their Greenhouse, which the Harpers call their “Hoop house” for which they are receiving funding to expand, is a fully enclosed 1,000 square foot efficient farm, if you can still call it that. Because it’s a Greenhouse that is solar powered, the entire operation is 100% independent of Fossil Fuel inputs in the following ways:

  1. Sunlight – the canopy of the greenhouse controls the lighting, which can be redirected via the use of mirrors and lamps at night time
  2. Pumps – Energy is from the sunlight. Because it’s a looped water system, the waste water can be easily recycled.
  3. Fertilizer usage – Because of the looped water recovery system, less use is needed for fertilizer, as soil erosion is not an issue as worms digest Organic matter to make compost
  4. Pesticides – less are needed, as the enclosed environment means that pests and pathogens can be easily monitored and dealt with using natural means

Consequently their design uses less water than the average farm for their product yield, as testified by Rebecca Harper, quote: “Our hoop-house — so called because the plants are grown in pipes with nutrient enriched water — yields 1,400 pounds of lettuce and 500 pounds of basil weekly”!

Ditto too for the reduced use and need for pesticides and fertilizer, quote: “We currently use one-third of the amount of water that would be needed to irrigate a field, equal to the size of our 1,000 square foot farm. The seedlings are less susceptible to environmental and pest issues associated with soil cultivation. The systems are low maintenance and the farmers will also be trained in the farming technique and care of the systems.”

The Harper’s Hydroponics system represents a way by which sustainable Community based and large scale faming can be done powered by Solar Power without the need for Fossil Fuel based inputs. It represents a model that the Ministry of Agriculture can copy on a large scale islandwide, and thus engender the interest of the young, as it’s Soil-less agriculture

Solar Drying – Nutri-Ceutical and Sweetener Feedstock from the Excess of the Land

Eaton Haughton’s company, Caribbean ESCo, aims to provide “Energy efficient hybrid solar agro-products dryer utilizing alternative renewable Energy and liquid desiccant technologies”.

The genius of his Project, for which he won the IDEAS grant, is that it takes the excess produce of Agricultural production that cannot be sold or that which is damaged and unfit for local consumption or Export and converts it via drying into another VAS (Value Added Product). This is no different from a processing plant that converts liquefies excess Eggs and repackages them into plastic packets for easy usage by hotels as well as for export. In a similar manner, vegetables that would be thrown always as spoilage are preserved for export to First World countries to be used as feedstock in the production of:

  1. Nutri-Ceuticals
  2. Feedstock for fermentation into liqueurs i.e. alcoholic beverages
  3. Flavouring in sweets and soft drinks
  4. Pigments and colours for food dyes and Organic Paints
  5. Any fruit or vegetable’s flavor , which is mainly the product of a combination of sugars, esters, alcohols, starches and other Organic matter

Solar Power can be used to dry excess agricultural produce, be it fruit or vegetable and it can be processed in this manner for export or local usage by manufacturers and farmers as feedstock for livestock.

The words of Eaton Haughton put it best, quote: “The key is to prevent waste, provide stability in cases of market glut, and create value-added products to boost the Agricultural sector. Persons will also be trained in building and maintaining the dryers. Imagine the export prospects for the country; the processor will dry up a tonne of produce in 24 hours”.

But what impresses me about this Project is that all of this is accomplished by focusing the Energy of the Sun in Solar Dryers; again the absence of Fossil Fuels makes this an excellent candidate for the Ministry of Agriculture to copy on a large scale islandwide, again capturing the interest of the young, as it’s effectively Agricultural Recycling.

Organic Biogas Energy – Self-powered Homes using Organic Waste a possibility

Echos CEO, Richard May, in my mind, is one of the most interesting Project to date and in my mind, would immediately be of interest to most Jamaican, especially as his Biogas Project converts Organic Waste to Electricity.

This as talk of importing LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) as part of the development of a LNG Power Plant partly funded by the JPS Co (Jamaica Public Service Company) and the GOJ via the negotiating auspices of the Minister of Science, Technology Energy and Mining Senator Phillip Paulwell has been in the news. It has also made the Geezam blog in the form of the article JPS Co to build Jamaica’s first Gas Turbine Power Plant in St. Catherine.

LNG is nothing more than a compressed form of Natural Gas, which is mostly methane and has the same composition as BioGas. Both are the result of anaerobic decomposition of Organic material, with Natural Gas being a waste product that is capped at the head of the Oil Well after being dissolved in the Oil for millions of years much in the same way as Carbon Dioxide is dissolved in the contents of a fizzy drink.

Drilling for Oil releases the pressure and the dissolved Natural Gas that had formed from anaerobic decay bubbles up first, with the Oil Well operators usually flaring it off at the wellhead. This is due to the fact that it its build-up at the wellhead is dangerous and can cause an explosion and the majority of the Natural Gas has no large scale usage – at least not yet.

The Echos Projects aims to make it cost-effective for farmers to convert their Organic waste, no matter what form, not only into BioGas for cooking and warming Pig pens of chicken coops, but also into Electricity. In essence, the same process of producing Natural Gas, but on a smaller Scale and used for electricity production instead of just as Cooking Gas. This Electricity the farmers can sell back to the JPS Co Grid and make money via the Net Billing Arrangement that even Minister Phillip Paulwell is taking advantage of with his solar-powered house.

Echos CEO Richard Mays expresses the large scale potential of his Project best, quote: “This could be a new source of income for farmers as they could convert their waste — whether manure of crop refuse — to Electricity and then sell it to the Electricity supplier or use it to power their equipment. The reduction in Energy cost will undoubtedly lead to greater productivity for our farmers.”

But it’s the potential for its use to convert even Organic waste from ordinary households and human sewage into Electricity that should catch the interest of many Jamaicans. It is a necessary part of Energy Sector Liberalization to develop Alternative Energy technology to make it possible for household to produce their own Electricity. Not everyone can afford Solar Panels, but all household produce Organic waste and sewage, which can be converted into Electricity that can power the house and thus get you completely of the JPS Co using BioGas.

This long term vision for Energy independence from the state is best expressed by Echos CEO Richard Mays, quote: “The Caribbean must consider Energy solutions that are specific to our context and needs. One of the core aims of the Project is to create employment and promote the transfer of learning regarding renewable Energy solutions.”

The “Green”-ness of this initiative should also attract GOJ attention, as it not only closes the Agricultural production loop by making money even from the Organic waste from normal Agricultural production, but also it presents the possibility that ordinary people can in the future. Wean themselves from JPS Co by merely doing what they do naturally on their toilets; produce Organic waste.

The Future of Agriculture – Solar, Hydroponic, VAS and Organic Waste Recycling

The title sums it up best. As the Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke move to modernize Jamaica’s Agriculture over the next three (3) years by spending a total of US$8,000,000 on Agro Parks to do Agro processing in St Thomas, St Catherine, Clarendon, Manchester, St Elizabeth and Trelawny to take advantage of the demand for Organic Produce from Jamaica and other CARICOM nations, one wonders if the GOJ is going in the wrong direction.

In fact, it may be a knee jerk reaction to the issue of fluctuating Corn pricing, as the Ministry of Agriculture had also announced plans for large-scale Corn growth on some 200 acres of land in Amity Hall, St. James. This despite the Ministry of Agriculture failing to take advantage of help from the People’s Republic of China assistance as it relates to sustainable Rice Production since July 2010.

Sugar deals with Chinese firm COMPLAN and Coffee have also not fared so well since deals were struck with the Chinese Firms in July 2010 with no reports of improved production resulting from these deals struck under the previous JLP Administration by Dr. Christopher Tufton.

Interestingly with this new Deal by Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke, as was the case then, there is no mention of the plans to develop farming on the South Coast, particularly Spring Plains, near Toll Gate and Victoria Town in Clarendon. Efficiency in Agricultural production, which the above three (3) Projects promotes and have been given the blessing of the IDB, a lender to the GOJ, would thus suggest that instead of reviving Agro Processing, the Ministry of Agriculture should focus on modernizing Agriculture and make it less dependent on Fossil Fuel inputs at the most basic level: the Farm itself.

The GOJ adopting the above combination of Solar, Hydroponic, VAS and Organic Waste Recycling would push Jamaica into Organic Farming that has the following benefits:

  1. Less environmental impact on the Land
  2. More efficient use of the land, once scaled up to size
  3. Provides a means of utilizing excess production that cannot be exported internationally or used locally in its current form
  4. Organic Agricultural waste can be recycled and used to make BioGas, basically Natural Gas, solving Jamaica growing Sewage and Garbage disposal and making electricity generation possible

Sustainable Organic Farming Practices is the most feasible long-term means to guarantee Jamaica’s Food Security in a world slowly trending towards Peak Oil in 2015 and too heavily dependent on the US Food supply. They would be an added complement to the Agro Processing Facilities and would boost Jamaican Farming efficiency by making the Farming inputs more efficient.

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Lindsworth is a Radio Frequency and Generator Maintenance Technician who has a knack for writing about his work, which is in the Telecoms Engineering Field. An inspired writer on themes as diverse as Autonomous Ants simulations, Power from Lightning and the current Tablet Wars.

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