Farm-to-Table Dinners on Jamaica’s Southwest Coast

Sustainable agriculture expert Liz Solms answers questions about a farm-to-table initiative on southwest Jamaica’s Treasure Beach.

The November/December issue of Traveler features our annual “Places Rated” survey of destination stewardship, with 340 expert panelists rating 99 coastal destinations around the world. Among the places included in this year’s survey were Jamaica’s southwest and northwest coasts. Despite their proximity to each other, these two destinations received divergent reviews from panelists, with the southwest achieving a respectable rating a respectable 70 and the northwest finding itself among our lowest-ranked destinations with a dismal score of 45. 

In a magazine essay accompanying the survey results, Traveler contributing editor Jay Walljasper explains why the southwest coast has managed to maintain its unique geographic character better than the northwest coast. He found that visitors to the northwest coast too often spend their entire vacation garrisoned inside all-inclusive resorts that limit their exposure to authentic Jamaican culture. Because so many of these resorts are foreign-owned, tourism doesn’t economically benefit Jamaicans to the extent that it could. By contrast, those who visit the southwest coast are more likely to interact with local residents and stay in hotels that are integrated into local communities. Because most restaurants, hotels, and shops are Jamaican-owned, tourist dollars remain in the local economy and the place leaves a greater impression on the visitor than vice verse.

A monthly farm dinner series run by Jake’s, an eco-friendly boutique resort located in the fishing village of Treasure Beach, exemplifies the southwest coast’s success in merging tourism with community development. Each month on the Saturday closest to the full moon, foreign visitors and Jamaican residents gather on a local farm to indulge themselves in a several-course, gourmet dinner prepared with ingredients grown on local organic farms. In recent years, farm-to-table dinners have gained markedly in popularity in the United States other developed countries.  They take place less frequently developing countries like Jamaica where economic constraints make it more difficult to get sustainable tourism initiatives off the ground. To learn more about the program, I interviewed Liz Solms, local agriculture expert and accomplished chef who organizes the dinners.

Read my Q & A with her after the jump.

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What inspired you to organize the monthly farm dinners? What do you hope they will achieve?

I have worked closely with small subsistence farmers in the Pedro Plains region of Jamaica (our farming belt) for nearly six years now. I feel this region and these farmers are often without recognition–the Pedro Plains is one of the most beautiful and bountiful places in all of Jamaica, but is rarely thought of as a destination. I thought, what better way to bring recognition to the area but by placing people right in the field, eating the food that is grown there? The beauty and richness of the region then becomes irresistible.

Why did you select Jake’s as the venue?

Jake’s has been our longest supporter in our mission to get the vegetables that our small farmers grow into the local market. Jake’s has purchased from strictly local producers and farmers long before the whole concept has gotten trendy. It just seemed like such a natural fit because of our shared vision for how to care for each other in a community.

Farm-to-table dinners and other forms and agri-tourism have gained markedly in popularity in developed countries in recent years. It’s encouraging to see this project take shape in a developing country like Jamaica where economic constraints likely make it more difficult to get sustainable tourism initiatives off the ground. Are there any obstacles that you’ve had to overcome while organizing the dinners that you don’t think you would have had to face in a less economically challenged place?

Absolutely. We have met challenges that one may not experience in the first world. But Jamaica teaches you to have a form of resilience and perseverance in its purest state. It’s sort of like: Ok, there are obstacles, but so what? Despite economic and infrastructural restraints, we’ve managed to pull off a world class program. This truly speaks to the power of persistence, which is something I see as culturally engrained in the fabric of Jamaican society. 

Do you notice any demographic trends among the dinner attendees?  Do your dinners appear to cater primarily to a people from specific age groups? Socio-economic statuses? Countries or regions of origin?  Do any local residents attend?

Our dinners are a perfect melting pot across demographic and social lines. At our last farm dinner, a spa director from a well known hotel in Miami was seated next to the owner of our local hardware store–two people equally interested and appreciative of the experience of eating dinner in the field. A celebrated Jamaican chef was seated next to the farmer of the property himself. A big businessman from Brazil chatted all night with a filmmaker from the United States. It’s a perfect mix–and maybe something you wouldn’t find anywhere else. And I would say the majority of our guests live in Jamaica. The conversation at the table is really unmatched.

Is there anything you would like to change about the dinners either in the short-term or long-term?

Hmmmm. Well we want to start introducing more and more guest chefs and food experts as time goes on. But most importantly, we want other farmers from the region to transition to organic and think of their farms as potential sites for future dinners–thriving places to be proud of, free from chemical input.

Rates for the dinner are US$95/person.  Guests can reserve a spot by calling Jake’s at
(876)

965-3000.  Upcoming dinners will take place on December 15th and January 15th.  

Learn more about sustainable tourism at the National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations.

Photo: courtesy of Liz Solms