“Watch it! Stop–stop–stop!”
Keith rushes closer to where I’m standing, beside a small, prickly bush I had failed to notice at the start of our hike.
“Did I step on something? Agh! I stepped on a plant.”
“No, no, no, no, it’s more than that. It’s a scratchy bush. I should’ve warned you about that one.”
I feel an immediate burning sensation on my ankles, right above the sock line, but I don’t panic because Keith tells me it’s harmless.
“It’s medicinal bush, but it scratches!”
The tingle continues but it’s bearable and I move on, knowing time is ticking and sensing a lot to discover with the farmer teacher I had just met.
“You can tell I’m not on farms that often,” I joked.
It was the first of many lessons on my two-hour tour of Keith’s farm — officially called the Bluefields Organic Fruit Farm, Vegetables, Herbs and Tours, located just an hour southeast of Negril, in the hills of Bluefields’ small coastal and fishing community. Lessons about fruits, medicinal plants, and the benefits of organic farming–all born out of a family’s passion and vision.
Meeting Keith Wedderburn, founder of Bluefields Organic Fruit Farm
When I first called Keith Wedderburn, at the suggestion of Diana McIntyre-Pike, renowned founder of community tourism in Jamaica and in the Caribbean, he immediately agreed to show me around his organic farm, and even offered to drive me there. We would meet on a Saturday morning at a—>
parking lot in Sav-La-Mar, across Mannings High School. I showed up on Jamaican time–thanks to my ride from Negril who had done the same–but Keith was there, patiently waiting, behind the wheel of a 20-plus seater white bus. He uses it, it turns out, to shuffle children back and forth to their studies every day.
As soon as I boarded, Keith suggested we start with a little history (music to a journalist’s ears), discussing the areas we passed as he drove south and east, until we reached his birthplace: Bluefields.
The short distance was a reminder of Bluefields’ closeness to a major tourist town, yet offering an utterly remote, country feel. After checking out the well-known community Bluefields Beach nearby, we drove uphill and arrived at the farm in less than 15 minutes.
Sitting across his parents’ home and adjacent to his own family house, Keith’s farmland awaits us along a tranquil paved road. His father waves from a distance, quickly disappearing into his home as if running from the harsh sun.
The Organic Farm Tour: A haven of fruits, vegetables, and herbs
Keith opens a traditional wooden farm gate, smiling proudly as if he were introducing me to one of his kids. We enter a lush property dotted with trees, beneath clear blue skies.
“Farming for me has been a passion. I grew up in it. My wife and I acquired this property about 10 years ago,” Keith says, as we stand in the first phase of these two and a third-acres of farmed land.
It had been an abandoned field, for sale for many years. Keith and his wife Sandra lived next door, eyeing the property all those years while wondering if it was within their financial reach. After growing up around subsistence farming, Keith knew he wanted to farm differently, in a sustainable and profitable way, while also educating the public about a healthy lifestyle. His wife and he decided to take the plunge. They investigated the land, purchased it at a good price (I’ll let him tell you that story), and converted it into an organic farm.
“Why organic?” Keith asks before I do. “We noticed that food had become detrimental to people’s health because of processing. So we wanted to create something healthy for ourselves, and for the environment,” he explains.
In 2016, just two years after starting the farm, Keith won third place in the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show in Clarendon.
Hiking his land now, visibly filled with all sorts of plant species, it’s hard for me to picture a place that was previously wild and unused for 20 years–a good thing, he explains, because it meant that anything that had been applied on the soil had time to become extinct. A land which had nothing on it but one naseberry tree before the Wedderburns took on the demanding task of converting the land without any machinery, without pesticides nor chemicals.
Although Keith humbly calls his farm “a work in progress,” it’s a stunning environment of the healthiest tropical trees you’ve ever seen, smelled, or tasted. Meticulously plotted, it brims with colorful produce. Better looking fruits than I’ve seen anywhere at markets or supermarkets. My eyebrows rise with every footstep, and every bite. That’s right — we started to pluck, taste, while hiking. A walking fruit tour–how fun!
The grass rustles below our feet, and it’s 96 degrees in the shade.
“We have over 36 different fruits and vegetables. And they are all in different stages of development.”
We walk by a citrus tree, planted in 2014. I recognize a guava tree and all spice leaves, but couldn’t identify the garden cherries.
“Every time I come to the farm it’s a learning experience for me,” says Keith. “I’m serious yuh know!” he adds, noticing my disbelief given the expertise he’s shown thus far.
Next up are bananas–there are 7 varieties here.
“Traditionally, banana takes nine months to bear.”
“Like women, right?”
Keith laughs. “Yes. But it bears only once.”
All right — maybe not.
If there’s a hot sun that sends sweat drops down my back, I don’t notice it. I’m continuously sucking on a fruit or another, observing a new tree, and lost in the echo of goats still ringing out across the fishing village.
As if reading my thoughts, Keith mentions his sheep. “We have 13 sheep — they are the full time employees. They graze, and keep the place clean.”
We hike deeper into the second phase of the farm, past a plant nursery. I discover loquats–a plum-looking fruit that isn’t normally grown in Jamaica. Up next: sweetsop–sweet and flavorful–pomegranate, and lemongrass.
“What do you know about lemongrass?” Uh-oh. Keith is testing me.
“It helps break fever, you drink it like a tea.” I said, remembering my medicinal walks in Belize and other Caribbean parts.
“Good. What else?” I have no idea. “It’s also a natural mosquito repellant.”
Keith rubs a few leaves in his hands in a circle motion, and explains that he’s extracting the oil in the safest way possible–to avoid cuts from the blade-shaped leaves. He then applies the oil on his arms and shows me.
When I tell him I never knew that about lemongrass being a repellant, he unequivocally quips, “That’s why you’re here.”
Besides that, the goats don’t like the smell of lemongrass and when they whiff it, they head the other way. It manages to keep them out of the farm, and away from damaging the family’s hard work.
We move on, but not before I notice cactus along the way, cassava used to make bammy bread, and sugar cane–Keith chops, scrapes, and hands me a juicy piece.
I discover ortanique, a cross between a regular orange and a tangerine.
“The ortanique is a common cold remedy. Add a little honey to it, and gone!”
And then there’s the sour orange or bitter orange–one that tourists tend to like while Jamaicans shy from it.
The variety and health of all these plants and fruits are astounding. Fruits grown the traditional way–left to ripen on to the rhythms of Mother Nature. Back to the roots, as my farmer guide says.
“You have to have a variety of plants – a diversity,” Keith explains. “At the same time, these attract different pests. That’s the problem with agriculture today–where there’s only one type of crop in large quantity, the pest that loves it is free to multiply. But if you have a variety of plants, no one pest will dominate–so here, that won’t happen. Pests fight each other too, because some are predators, and some are preys.”
It immediately strikes me as a metaphor for life. Diversity for the win — even in farming.
“You want to eat it now?” It’s a question I don’t mind being asked more than once, and while I reply, why not?” June plum, rose apple, sweetsop, sugar cane sticks that Keith chops on site — I bite, crunch, drink, and forget about not putting my sticky fingers on the camera. If it’s in season, it’s part of the tasting tour.
Keitt mangoes, St Juli mangoes, and East Indian mangoes follow, as well as thyme, simone pears, coffee and cacao trees.
By now, I’m reluctant to reach the end of this super fun, educational afternoon.
“Coconuts!” The ultimate Caribbean treat. “Coconuts take about 4-5 years to bear, producing up to 75 coconuts in a year.” Keith shares. “The pumpkin, on the other hand, takes 12 months to grow. It’s nice to make a soup with it; this one is about 10 lbs heavy.” It’s the best-looking pumpkin I’ve ever seen. I lift it as well, to feel its weight in gold.
“You see? You cyan hungry at the farm!” Keith laughs, as I barely manage a chuckle from a mouthful of the recent round of fruit tasting.
“This one has your name on it,” he adds.
I turned around to see, and Keith was pointing at one of many starfruits hanging from its tree — gorgeous, shiny, yellow. “You have to have an eye for the farm to see things. You didn’t see that right?” He chuckles, amused with my lack of farming prowess.
It looks like we’re at the end of the two and a third acres–or so I thought.
“For the more active visitors, there’s a third part.” He points to a grassy hill facing us. “And there’s a prize at the top.”
The future: A farm stay
The competitive explorer in me signs up for the last, uphill hike without hesitation. And when we reach the summit, there’s a house with a show-stopping, panoramic view over Bluefields’ coastline and its iridescent turquoise sea. What a reward indeed–almost as good as those juicy fruits–hidden from street view, for the eyes of those who venture here.
Staring at the sea, and cooling off at the foot of a tree with my collection of fruits and veggies, I asked myself why I had never before heard of Keith’s organic farm experience. But it makes sense: it took four years for the family to plant these fruits, herbs, and vegetables, and let them naturally bear in amounts sufficient for visitors to discover and taste while hiking the farm.
Today, Bluefields Organic Fruit Farm is gaining more attention as schools, visitors, and health and wellness experts or fans make their way here to learn about organic farming, healthy eating, and discover Jamaica’s potential for agrotourism.
By the end of my tour, I had long forgotten about that prickly bush or the burning tickle on my ankle. As for the house at the top of the hill, it’s a near-finished guesthouse: Keith and Sandra’s vision for a complete farm stay in these lush hills of Bluefields. Cozy bedrooms with balcony sea views, a constant breeze, the fragrant fruit fields below, and the Wedderburn’s family home next door for home cooked, local meals. And fruits, of course.
A sweet, sweet Jamaica experience.
You can find more information about the Bluefields Organic Fruit Farm Tour in the upcoming, new edition of Rough Guide to Jamaica scheduled for release in August 2018, and now available for pre-order on Amazon.
A sincere thanks to Diana McIntyre-Pike, founder and president of Countrystyle Community Tourism Network, and Keith and Sandra Wedderburn, owners of Bluefields Organic Farm, for their support in visiting the Bluefields-Belmont area and the farm.