Truly, one of the traditions of Jamaican culture is found in its ganja production. Brought to the island by East Indians in the early 1800s, ganja is actually a Hindu term for the finest flowers from the best female cannabis plants.
Jamaicans consider the smoke an herb and not a drug. In the days of slavery, slaves would get together in groups and smoke their ganja. Slave owners thought that these slaves might be plotting to overthrow them so, to break up the gatherings, they would take away their pipes and herb. But the people persisted in smoking in groups. Slave owners moved to separate ganja from the people and to persecute those who would use it.
Many now use ganja religiously as a part of the Rastafarian movement, which began in the 1930s, as a product of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. Soon after Garvey started this movement a black man was crowned emperor in Africa. Many people in Jamaica considered Haile Selassie (ex-emperor of Ethiopia), whose real name is Ras Tafari, to be the liberator of the black man in the new world." Rastafarians always have access to excellent ganja, as it is an integral part of their lifestyle.
Present day ganja farmers learned traditional growing techniques passed down through many generations and have acquired new ideas mainly from US growers. The old style of farming left the plants free to breed among themselves. Harvest followed when the seeds were popping out of their pods. Not much attention was paid to selective breeding of various varieties. Fanners in the mountains got their seeds from the commercial grade of lowland marijuana. These growers began to raise seedless ganja around 1976 and have been fine tuning their cultivation skills with each succeeding crop.
The mountain herbalists tend their plants meticulously. In return, these plants respond to the caresses of their cultivators by producing dense, outrageously aromatic colas.
To produce primo ganja requires labor-intensive effort. The growers select a location, in this case, on a mountain ridgeline. They cut down the trees and drag them off to the side in order to fully expose the plants to the sun. Stumps are left in the patch to prevent helicopters from landing and so there'll be less wood to drag off. They clear the remaining wood
for use in building drying sheds for processing the herb. All the work of clearing the trees and brush, turning the soil, and cultivating is done by hand. Shovels and machetes are really the only tools used in the process.
The highland farmers sow their seeds densely in planting beds of non-fertilized soil and keep them watered to give them a good start. The soil is very thin on the mountain peaks between the sharp white-lava rock. When the seedlings are around three weeks old, they are transplanted around the patch. Contrary to common Jamaican agricultural practice, these farmers do use fertilizers. Bat guano, gathered from nearby caves, is added to the red soil before transplanting the seedlings. These guys are with their crops every day, pulling male plants, removing insects, yanking out troublesome weeds (ha!), and observing each subtle change.
The patches on the crests and steep sides of mountains get only as large as a couple of acres. Because of increased helicopter surveillance and easy access to lowland ganja fields by authorities, farmers have retreated deeper into the island. There is still plenty of cannabis in the lowlands for the police to handle so they usually stay away from the mountains. The
more remote locations are fairly secure from detection because of their inaccessibility. Quite often the mountain farmers resort to establishing guerilla patches in the government's forest preserve on "no man's land."
They plant the ganja grown on
these high ridges in order to take advantage of the rainy season which is in the early summer and early fall. Rainfall provides the only water on these peaks. There are no streams or ponds on top of these ridges.
Pure sativa varieties are usually started from May through July and harvested between late November and into January. Some of these sativa plants reach heights of twelve feet, but most will be six to nine feet tall at maturity. Sativas started in the late summer will grow six to seven feet maximum by midwinter. Indicas and hybrids are planted in the early summer for mid-fall harvest, then planted again in the early fall for mid-winter harvest.
The farmers in western Jamaica take more pride in their "mountain-peak" ganja than their valley-grown herb. A change of a thousand feet in elevation can greatly affect growth conditions. The ridgetop area had much less humidity, thinner soil, and no natural water reserves. The plants usually have less biomass and a higher proportion of calyxes to leaf.
Until a few years ago, many farmers didn't cultivate herb during the dry season which runs from November on into April. Either they were unaware of this short growing season or didn't consider the smaller quantity of ganja produced to be worth the trouble. Short season crops produce only about one-fourth the amount of buds. But now the season is taken full advantage of, with the quality of herb comparable to the long season (May-December). These short-dry season crops are grown near water sources, such
as those found in the valleys between the mountain-peak patches. The soil is much deeper and easier to cultivate where the rocks are absent. These lower elevation areas are high in temperature and humidity, even though the gardens are grown during the winter-dry season. Farmers have more problems with insects and the possibility of mold forming on the plants. The days are short enough to force the plants to flower almost immediately. Indicas and hybrids start bud clustering within four to five weeks and sativas start to fog in clusters in around two months. Some plants mature entirely in 2 1/2 months, while some will take four months. The pure indicas can be as small as a foot tall, with pure sativas being no more than seven feet in height.
Farmers grow separate gardens to produce seed for the main sinsemilla crop. Some sativas are kept inbred, while some are crossbred with indica strains introduced from the United States. Cultivators only collect seed from the most ideal plants to be used for planting and subsequent seed-breeding crops.
When each is at peak ripeness, farmers harvest the plants individually and bring them into the drying shed. They cut the branches to manageable lengths and hang them from lines strung under the ceiling. The sheds are built under shade trees, so the herb will stay relatively cool. In a few days, the buds are dry enough for further curing or to be processed for export by compressing them. The branches will be left hanging to further cure the ganja for storage. They clean the herb, then wrap it in many layers of plastic trash bags or place it in large whiskey-type barrels to keep fresh.
Preparation for export starts by manicuring the buds while they're still sticky and somewhat moist, yet dry enough to prevent molding. The growers place the cleaned bud into freezer bags and compress it under a hydraulic press into tight slabs about the size of a HIGH TIMES magazine, a quarter of an inch thick. Each slab is cut to weigh about a pound for the benefit of uniformity. Compressing ganja actually seals in the potency and bouquet of the herb; a waxy seal often foul's on the surface of the slab.
Since these growers are constantly in the field tending their crops, they don't do any hustling for business with the tourists. They are known by only a handful of foreigners and some locals, whom they deal with exclusively. Their ganja harvests approach 300 pounds a year, reaped from October through April. The amount of superfresh ganja available from these farmers at any one time amounts to only connoisseur quantities. No boatloads are destined to leave the island. Airliners are the primary transporters of the product, which often finds its way into the hands of a small clientele of consumers within a week of harvest.
Getting to the ganja patches can be a pot sampling expedition in its own right. Motorcycles are the most practical vehicles because they're easily concealable and they can get you farther into the forest than jeeps. If you ride into the mountains with a Jamaican you can sometimes go through unnoticed, but if you're alone or with other visitors the locals become very curious. Most of them know that many foreigners go inland to seek ganja. When you stop at a roadside stand people will gather around and see what they can do for you. They'll get to talking about herb, showing you what they've grown themselves. Naturally, each claims to have the best and they try to sell you more than you can possibly use. With ganja readily available, it's more fun obtaining just a few buds to compare with other samples. Ganja cultivation in Jamaica will no doubt continue as long as the soil remains in the fields, rains come regularly, and the sun shines down on the island Columbus once called "the fairest isle eyes have e'er beheld."