Ditching office job for farm, New Hall woman digs in
Twenty-nine-year-old Citerina Atkins did not dream that she would become a farmer.
The deCarteret College alumna, who hails from New Hall in Manchester, had her sights set on a career in finance.
After graduating from The University of the West Indies, Mona, with a degree in banking and finance, she did a one-year stint working at an insurance agency.
Not comfortable with the nine-to-five office environment, she began to look for a way out.
One Sunday, her cousin, Roike Campbell, who had recently quit his job in information technology to focus on farming, showed her the social media pages of Abbey Gardens Farm, managed by Young Champion Farmer and Nutramix Youth in Agriculture Ambassador Diandra Rowe, and she was intrigued.
On that farm, vegetables are grown using hydroponics, bag culture, ebb and flow, as well as the nutrient film technique.
“After seeing farming in that light, it motivated me and inspired me to go into the sector for myself,” Atkins told The Gleaner.
She soon saw the potential of agriculture to be an attractive, economically viable career option, and in July 2018, she made the transition to do full-time farming of sweet potatoes with her cousin.
Now the co-founder of Gerty’s Agro-Produce – named in honour of their late grandmother who was a farmer – and just over two years since she made that bold move, Atkins was awarded the Prime Minister’s National Youth Award for Excellence in Agriculture and Agro-Processing.
“I’ve been doing this for my fulfilment and not to be recognised. I’m truly honoured,” she told The Gleaner.
Campbell, who introduced Atkins to farming, said that his cousin is well deserving of the accolade.
“To see her as a young female in farming says a lot,” he said. “We have been progressing well. We work as a team to get everything accomplished.”
The young farmer had no formal training in agriculture but since she began, Atkins has been engaged in the 4-H Club’s Rural Youth Economic Empowerment Programme (RYEEP) and is now enrolled in the YWOP/US Embassy’s R.E.A.P Agri-Tech Entrepreneurship Programme.
“It’s a programme that trains us to recognise farming as a business. We do financial planning [and] marketing. We also do farm management and stuff along that line so we can apply that to the farming practices,” she said.
Atkins found it fairly easy to find a market for the sweet potatoes after her first harvest with assistance from the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA).
“We’ll come if we need to spray or if we need to scout the field for pests. We spray, apply fertiliser and coordinate reaping activities,” she said of how the farm is maintained, noting that she also depends on the morning and evening dew for soil moisture.
“Being a farmer in general, I am affected by the climate. We don’t have water in the drought season and when it rains, we lose our crops. As a female farmer, I think it’s better because I’m more recognised and persons gravitate to and give me advice because they are surprised to see a female farming,” she explained.
Atkins lost sweet peppers and cabbage crops in the October rains, but plans to plant a new crop, along with yam, in short order.
Community members have extended their charity to the two young farmers by allowing them to farm on idle lands they had leased from the Government.
They were recently allotted one and a half acres of land and have already prepared it and sowed sweet potato slips.
“We have access to about 20 acres of land, but we don’t have crops on all of it. We are trying to set up a system where we have good staggered production, so we have something coming in every month,” she revealed.
Atkins said that agriculture is a good investment as globally, food is always in demand, and “Jamaican produce is premium produce”.
“If we can increase the export of these produce and actually produce more import-substituted goods, it will help to affect the trade deficit and to basically minimise the imports,” she reasoned.
The young farmer harbours dreams of operating on multiple levels of the value chain.
“I want to go into agro-processing and exporting for myself. I’m doing my research, I’m contacting JAMPRO, and I’m working towards that,” she said.
She relishes the freedom that she is afforded as a farmer and entrepreneur. Since her entry into the sector, she has been focused on using agriculture as a tool of community development. The farming duo donates produce to the elderly and early-childhood institutions as well as employs community members and educate them on the importance of treating agriculture as a business.
Her word of advice to other young persons thinking of going into agriculture: “Consult with RADA, consult with your agronomist and get expert advice before you venture into the field. Do your research and don’t let fear hold you back from doing something you want to do.”