Pantrepant Farm and Jamaica’s Organic Movement

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Chicken coop at Pantrepant in the hills of the Cockpit Country.

I often despair over man’s destruction of our planet and dream about living high up in the mountains, surrounded by nothing but the beauty of wild nature, far away from pollution and noise, being fully self-sufficient and living off the land like we did hundreds of years ago. Chris Blackwell has created exactly this in Pantrepant Farm in Jamaica. It is my idea of paradise and the most beautiful place I have ever seen. A year and a half after my first visit, I went back to see the changes that have taken place and was given a more in-depth tour of the farm.

We drove up the long, narrow, potholed dirt road, past old trees, grazing cattle, a citrus farm and two colonial estates: Wales and Good Hope, where there were horse stables and ruins of a water wheel, at the bridge crossing over the running Martha Brae river. Finally there was an opening that lead up to the old Pantrepant plantation house on a lush green hilltop. I met with Gustavo Diaz, the manager at Pantrepant who also showed me around during my last visit.

Pantrepant, a Welsh name meaning house in the hollow, began as a sugar cane plantation in the mid-1700s, then in the late 1800s it became a cattle farm until Chris Blackwell bought the property 25 years ago. Since he has owned Pantrepant, his goal has been to create a sustainable organic farm to supply his resorts, a CSA for private customers and provide a model for sustainable agriculture from which the people of Jamaica can learn, helping to reverse the country’s dependence on imported food. There are still 700 acres of pasture for raising Jamaican Red Poll and Brahman beef cattle, which are sold for breeding. 1,400 acres are forested land; 400 acres are mixed use of landscaped areas, roads, rivers and crops which include short-cycle crops, fruit tree stands and coconut trees; and the remaining 15 acres of land are for chickens, sheep and protein banks.

What makes Pantrepant Farm so unique is that Chris Blackwell has preserved the integrity of nature. Being a lover of all things old, I was stunned by its timeless beauty when I first saw it. Everything is in harmony with the natural surroundings. The house is rustic, horses roam freely to graze on pasture, grasses and trees are kept wild, barns and fencing are made of old wood and various types of fruit trees grow together with vegetable patches dotted around them. Down a bank through the trees, there is a natural swimming hole which joins the Martha Brae river, where guests can swim.

At the entrance to the property Gustavo showed me around the sugar mill ruins, which I had not seen before, dating back to when Pantrepant was a sugar cane plantation.  Amongst the ruins was a pool of eight feet of water which used to be a molasses storage tank. Connected to this was an aqueduct carrying water from the river into the pool. Farm-to-table events are held here: a new hospitality component to the farm in which guests staying at one of Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost hotels can spend a day at Pantrepant. There are plans to install a small hydropower plant at the aqueduct to power some of the buildings in the farm. Since my last visit there have also been solar panels installed to pump water from the river to all of the houses and cultivation areas throughout the farm, minimising one of their largest electrical expenses. There is Wi-Fi and a weather station to measure precipitation, wind, humidity and temperature.

We walked through the gardens where there was an incredibly wide variety of fruits and vegetables such as ackee, breadfruit, avocado, orange, papaya, mango, guava, banana, pineapple, cinnamon, nutmeg, jack fruit, otaheiti apple, sorrel, callaloo, sugar cane, june plum, noni, plantain, yam, read pea, cassava, lime, acerola, tamarind, star apple, sugar plum, coconut, cacao and an apiary for honey. There are between 50 and 75 different crops growing on the farm. They also have a small scale dairy operation where they milk their own cows and produce ice cream and butter for the farm. Gustavo explained how important it is to nourish the soil through adding compost, which they do organically using a combination of manure from their cows, horses and sheep, mixed with carbon. Other sustainability efforts include growing of leguminous shrubs & trees to harvest as fodder for sheep and their own wood workshop for building furniture and treating lumber. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays they harvest their crops for delivery on Friday to their resorts—The Caves, Strawberry Hill and Goldeneye as well as a select group of customers en route.

The main new project at Pantrepant is the Black Soldier Fly Project in which black soldier flies are bred to feed chickens in order to expand to a commercial scale of 600 chickens a week by the end of the year and be able to supply all of their hotel restaurants, staff cafeterias and 40 workers at Pantrepant. Goldeneye produces 1000 pounds of food scraps a week which they use to feed the larvae and attract the flies. Their eggs are planted into corrugated cardboard placed around the food scraps and dry coconut husks; when they hatch, the larvae self harvest by feeding themselves out. They are then separated into two phases, one for breeding more flies, and the other for feeding to the chickens. The flies are a nutritious high protein food source for the chickens. They are dried using a solar dryer to stabilise, store and feed the chickens over time. The chickens will be separated into three groups and rotated every day to graze on fresh pasture, only to be taken indoors at night to avoid predators such as mongooses. They will also be fed corn produced from the farm and food scraps from the packing room. Grass and wood shavings from the farm are used for their bedding; therefore, nothing is bought from outside the farm. The project which will include a slaughter facility, will be fully functioning by the end of the year. By this time they will have pigs, which the flies will also be fed to.

When I asked Gustavo if their goal was to eventually be the sole provider for their hotels, he told me that Pantrepant will be the largest supplier, but they want to continue to support the community and keep purchasing from local vendors. Their aim is to stop buying from distributors and importers. They encourage local farmers who usually come from small farms to produce for them. These farmers don’t have money to buy fertiliser so their crops are mostly organic.

Interns come twice a year to Pantrepant from Earth University: a university specialising in sustainable agriculture for tropical climates (where Gustavo graduated), to spend 15 weeks at the farm. This year two students from the University of West Indies came for a 6 week internship. They also welcome farmers and school children to come and learn about how they farm and why their practices are so important. Chris Blackwell’s long-term plan once his farm is fully functioning sustainably, is to have a training centre offering courses and apprenticeships to young Jamaican farmers.

I was impressed to find that the organic movement in Jamaica has taken off since my last visit. The food at many of the resorts has improved with menus now including organic ingredients; some of the hotels including Round Hill and more recently The Tryall Club, have started their own organic gardens. Grill, the restaurant at Round Hill features a new farm-to-table menu and in May they launched weekly farm dinners. Jakes Hotel on the south coast hosts monthly farm-to-table dinners served on site at local farms. Adam Miller (previously the manager at Pantrepant) has followed in Chris Blackwell’s footsteps and started his own organic farm and CSA, Potosi Farms, which delivers to hotels, restaurants and homeowners across the island. There is a government backed effort to promote local farming and a return to Jamaica’s agricultural roots, since they reached a food security crisis due to the increasing cost and dependence on imported food. The government have handed out thousands of seed kits to encourage backyard farming and 400 schools have implemented gardening and cooking programmes, which the students benefit greatly from with improved attendance and achievement. Grocery stores now also label local produce with stickers and large displays.¹ Chris Blackwell having pioneered the movement, there is great promise for organic farming and sustainability in Jamaica.

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1. Cave D (2013). As Cost of Importing Food Soars, Jamaica Turns to the Earth. The New York Times. 4 August 2013, A6