Jamaica's Tomato Mystery

In a country like Jamaica you can buy tomatoes grown in Mexico and shipped by a broker in Florida that are cheaper than tomatoes grown by farmers just a couple of hours away from Kingston. The phenomenon is a mystery of economics and something that keeps farmers in developing countries mired in poverty.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now a mystery, a global economic mystery involving tomatoes.

Planet Money's Alex Blumberg explains.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It was a Jamaican businessman, a guy named Joe Matalon, who first told me about the tomato mystery. We were at his house in Kingston, having a wide-ranging discussion about the Jamaican economy, when he said this.

Mr. JOE MATALON: You go to a supermarket today and you buy a tomato, and they sell local tomatoes at a much higher price than they sell imported tomatoes - in a supermarket, labeled imported tomato, Jamaican tomato. And the Jamaican tomato is more expensive.

We import most of the food that we eat, and we're living in a tropical country. And it gets here less expensive than the product that was grown in the fields of St. Elizabeth.

BLUMBERG: Which is how far away?

Mr. MATALON: Two and a half hours.

BLUMBERG: Well, I like a good mystery as much as the next guy, so I set off for St. Elizabeth - an agricultural parish in western Jamaica - to try and figure it out.

Unidentified Man: Yah, man. Yah, man. Yah, man. Take care.

BLUMBERG: The answer came when I met a farmer named Winchell Wellington, nicknamed Gabby. The nickname comes from a cartoon character that was on Jamaican television when he was a boy.

Gabby has a small, three-acre farm in St. Elizabeth, but he only works there a couple months out of the year. The rest of the time, he works somewhere else.

Mr. WINCHELL WELLINGTON (Farmer): I work on a farm in America.

BLUMBERG: You worked on a farm in America? Where?

Mr. WELLINGTON: Lake City, up in Florida.

BLUMBERG: I ask Gabby: What's the difference between farming in America and farming here? And he gets this overwhelmed look in his eye, as if I'd asked: What's the difference between building a sandcastle and a skyscraper?

Take melons. In America, he says:

Mr. WELLINGTON: They plant 25 acres of melon in one day.

BLUMBERG: Twenty-five acres in one day.

Mr. WELLINGTON: Yeah, they've got a truck that will do 20 acres in a day.

BLUMBERG: And how much can you plant here?

Mr. WELLINGTON: It take a lot of men to do 25 acres. Maybe it would take 15, 25 people to do that.

BLUMBERG: Right.

Mr. WELLINGTON: And in America, where I work, they do 25 acres with three of us.

BLUMBERG: So 25 acres with just three people in America versus 25 acres with 10, 15 or 25 people in Jamaica. And that's just to plant the crops. Let's not even get into spraying.

Mr. WELLINGTON: We spray 150-acre farm 1:30 and by 6, you're finished.

BLUMBERG: Right. And here, it would take how long to spray?

Mr. WELLINGTON: A hundred and fifty acres would take you maybe three, four days with maybe four, five, six pump. It's very hard to compete with them.

BLUMBERG: Gabby had lots of stories like this, a litany of amazing things they did in America: better machines, better seeds, better sprays. And all of these things combined, of course, are the solution to our tomato mystery. It's this massive technological advantage that makes tomatoes from abroad so much cheaper.

But as often happens, solving one mystery just leads to another. Why doesn't Gabby just buy the same technology, the same seeds and fertilizer and irrigation systems that they have in America? Maybe then, he could become more competitive.

Ms. ROSE MARY GARCIA (Nathan Associates): Typically, it is the lack of ability to get loans from the banking system.

BLUMBERG: This is Rose Mary Garcia, with the economic consulting firm Nathan Associates. She says you see farmers like Gabby a lot in the developing world. They know exactly what they need to buy to be more productive, but they can't get the money - often for a pretty simple reason.

Ms. GARCIA: They may not have titles to their lands. If they don't have the right paperwork, then therefore they can't provide their land as collateral and therefore, the banks are not willing to take that risk.

BLUMBERG: Garcia says this leads to the situation you have in Jamaica, where there are two types of farms: large-scale, technologically intensive farms - like the kind they have in America - and then small-scale, near-subsistence farms, like Gabby's. Garcia says the goal is to improve the credit system so that you get a new kind of farm, one that's somewhere in the middle.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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