In the eastern section of Jamaica are the Blue Mountains, famous for Blue Mountain coffee, which rise as much as 7400 feet above sea level. Some parts of this mountainous region receive 200 inches of rain a year; temperature and humidity are moderated by rain and wind.
In lowland areas, plateaus and coastal regions, temperatures are higher and rainfall amounts are far lower, with most rainfall coming in May, June, October and November.
Jamaican ganja farmers grow almost exclusively outdoors. Poverty and lack of infrastructure on the predominantly rural island prevent growers from having enough money or secure indoor space to set up artificial lights.
All ganja farmers I spoke to said the island was suffering from a long-term drought. Most cultivators rely on natural rainfall and catchments to irrigate their crops; public water supplies are unreliable or unavailable in many remote areas.
The water situation forces some growers to plant near streams, springs or in swampy areas. Others buy water tanks and pay exorbitant fees for trucked-in H2O.
Some growers, especially those in undeveloped or coastal areas, complain that groundwater is polluted, a vector for disease, or brackish. Minerals and salts in brackish water kill or stunt crops. Bacteria, agricultural run-off, industrial oils, mining wastes, and other pollution harms plants, or renders buds unfit for human consumption.
Soil conditions vary widely. Growers in high-rainfall upper elevation regions usually work with rich, loamy, well-aerated soil that is free of clay and sand and is balanced at an appropriate pH (in the 5.7 to 6.8 range), so plants can easily absorb major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium along with micronutrients like magnesium and zinc.
Other regions of Jamaica have less ideal soil conditions. Limestone shelves, sand, rocks, and gravel underlie a thin layer of nutrient-deficient soil in some areas; the resulting alkalinity slows growth by preventing efficient uptake of the already insufficient nutrient profile. Growers augment such soil with bat guano, fish entrails, manure, compost and urine. They also add gypsum, which counters excess alkalinity.
Site selection and preparation are complicated by security and labor concerns. Ganja is grown primarily in “the bush,” where private property rights are rarely delineated. People and livestock use traditional bush trails that transect ganja fields. Rip-offs and snitching have become increasingly common, as retail ganja prices have risen from $5 US an ounce 20 years ago to $40 an ounce today.
Jamaicans aren’t big consumers of red meat, so cows are ubiquitous and problematic. Several growers showed me trampled fences and munched-on marijuana fields. They claimed that cows eat cannabis, especially tall, leafy cannabis just before it is ready to flower.
“Them bovines get high off ganja,” a grower asserted, “and if you drink their milk, you get high.”
To counteract cows and thieves, many growers live in their fields. They stand guard with small but vicious dogs, as well as the ever-present machete.
There is a kind of frontier justice in the Jamaican bush. Cattle and people caught stealing ganja are quietly dispatched with a swift stroke of the sharpened blade. Luckier human thieves retain their lives but are asked to provide their sisters or girlfriends for sexual services, or to pay unusually high prices for the ganja they stole.
Almost all Jamaican cultivators grow plants from seed. Unfortunately, the genetics they use are often ill-suited for the island’s semi-equatorial photoperiod, which consists of roughly equal amounts of day and night.
Decades ago, Jamaicans were primarily growing tropical varieties accustomed to twelve hour days. Many of these were imports of famous plant types, such as Colombian Gold, Oaxacan, Panama Red, and a few African varieties. I photographed several buds that were gold and lanky; the grower admitted that he got the original seeds when he smuggled Colombian marijuana in the 1970’s.
According to long-time growers, Jamaicans who emigrated to Europe and the USA returned to the island with seeds from Holland and North America, beginning in the late 1970’s. And even though I assayed approximately twelve distinctly different types of cannabis during my recent Jamaica forays, every grower I met identified his plants as one of the following: Skunk, Ice, Northern Lights, Purple, and Power Plant. None of these are indigenous breeds.
I later determined that most growers had no idea what types of seed they were actually using. Cultivators and retailers had learned to use names like “Skunk” as a marketing tool so ganja tourists would think they were smoking familiar varieties.
Nevertheless, the introduction of Northern genetics has negatively affected yield. Plants sprout, grow to be between one and three feet high, and then begin flowering. Some outdoor gardens, grown from seed, resemble sea of green clone gardens, with miniature flowering plants that never live up to the potential largesse afforded by strong outdoor sun and fresh air.
If Jamaicans want to increase their yield, as well as the potency of their product, they would do well to begin growing specialized strains like Neville’s Haze and Marley’s Collie, which can handle equatorial photoperiods, humidity and temperatures.
Several growers told me that tourists who bring quality seeds to the island, especially seeds appropriate for its climate and light cycles, would be exceedingly well compensated. The Jamaican mail system is rife with corruption. Growers who try to order seeds via mail sometimes find that they “disappear” in transit.
Ganja farming is hard work. Most cultivators start by hand-clearing a patch of trees. Then they burn the stubble so that ashes enrich the soil and make it more tillable.
Marijuana growing is partially responsible for rapid deforestation of the island. Jamaica was almost totally forested 200 years ago, now it is only 30% forested. Every ganja patch I visited was cut into a forest clearing. Burnt stumps of large trees were evident.
After sun-obscuring vegetation is chopped down, farmers remove rocks and other debris from the soil. If they are in marginal soil areas, they carry in soil amendments, often building raised beds containing a growing medium that is far more nutritious than surrounding native soils.
In areas where water shortage is a problem, growers put paper towels, plastic, and other absorptive materials into planting holes. In some cases, they dig a hole, line it with plastic, then fill it with a mix containing rich soil and absorptive fillers like vermiculite and perlite.
Seeds are usually sprouted in peat pots. Germination rates are high, although molds, mildew and fungi infrequently attack seeds or seedlings.
If seeds survive sprouting and early childhood, they are usually safe until flowering, when a variety of boring caterpillars and budworms can arrive to destroy a grower’s flowers. These pests are most attracted to fat buds.
Growers report that they walk through their fields, shaking plants to dislodge pests, or peering into buds for telltale signs of damage. Such damage usually consists of curled or darkened bud leaves, along with small holes in the white, orange, or purple hairs that are characteristic of well-developed female flowers. Bud eating pests often eat from the inside out, leaving behind a hollow bud or a damaged flower that can then be easily invaded by mold.
Ethical farmers remove pests by hand, but some growers use natural and chemical pesticides and herbicides on their crops. They sometimes use fertilizer solutions containing urine and fecal matter. Ganja consumers are advised to carefully smell and visually examine dried ganja to detect these contaminants, which can cause serious discomfort and illness.
Ganja farmers in Jamaica can harvest two to four times a year, depending on variety grown. They do not as yet utilize advanced concealment, pruning, cloning, or rejuvenation techniques to increase yield, continuity, or security. They often harvest too early, when flowers are undeveloped, or too late, after resin glands have ambered and their stalks fallen.
Sophisticated curing and drying techniques are not well understood in Jamaica. Plants are often yanked out of the ground and hung whole in trees. In rainy areas, they are placed inside dark plastic bags or well-ventilated huts.
Due to humidity, it can take as long as three weeks for ganja to cure properly. In general, however, properly-grown outdoor Jamaican weed is among the tastiest you will find anywhere.
It is advisable to procure ganja within two weeks of curing, however. Most farmers and dealers do not store their crop in refrigerators; high temperatures and light rapidly break down cannabinoids into inferior constituents that create a narcotic, dulling effect rather than the soaring high that the island’s best outdoor weed produces.
The island’s cultivators bitterly complain about US-sponsored helicopter and airplane surveillance, as well as snitches, who lead ground soldiers and police to their fields.
Growers say they are not often arrested during “chop and destroy” missions, because they have the opportunity to bribe cutters and their bosses to prevent legal problems.
One man, who stopped growing ganja five years ago after he was forced to kill a drunk islander who was “messing with” his half acre ganja field, said his 1993 ganja harvest was taken by Jamaican soldiers just as his crop of 200 plants was at its ripest.
“I say to them, ‘Mon, look at what you do, stealing the food out of de children’s mouths. This is your country, Mon. Who are you loyal for? Who is your brother?’ One soldier, he take a dollar bill out of his pocket and hold it to me and say, ‘Whoever give me this money, I be loyal. Money is my brother.'”