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From Celery Boy to Lettuce King
Frank Ali started working at age ten in the San Juan market, selling celery from a little cardboard box at two for $1 to help pay for his schooling.
“My mother was selling in the market, too. She would put the celery in the box and I would walk all over the market selling.”
The eldest of four siblings, Ali was attending the Arouca Anglican Primary at the time and helping to pay for his uniform and bookbag. He continued selling in the market for five years on weekends and holidays, even after he entered the Barataria Junior Secondary and Arima Senior Comprehensive Schools.
By Form Three, between school and attending church with his grandmother, he was planting lettuce and patchoi in his own little garden and selling in the market. Today, at 41, Ali is called the “lettuce king” for growing the nicest, healthiest lettuce. He plants one acre in Bon Air, Arouca and was a supplier of lettuce to a major fast food chain.
“My focus is to produce the safest, healthiest lettuce.”
His strong sense of what is right and concern for others is behind his focus. “What I present to you, I must be able to eat at home without worry.
“Lettuce is consumed raw and it is very important to use the least amount of chemicals and the safest ones.”
Ali’s deep concern for others also drives him to help save youth in his community from a life of crime and he uses agriculture to do this, even dipping into his own pocket at times and sacrificing his garden.
“I try to instill in them a sense of responsibility for living, growing things.”
Giving his blueprint for producing healthy lettuce, Ali said he is GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) certified by the National Marketing Development Company Ltd (Namdevco) and mandated to produce safe crops. He said Class One agricultural chemicals are the most toxic and dangerous while Class Four is the safest. “I use Class Four.
“The more toxic chemicals are cheaper and may work faster and have no smell or colour. But they are carcinogenic and dangerous to consumers and people working in the field.
“I pay $100 a bottle for the safest chemicals and use the least amount, spraying it on the ground, not the leaves.”
After he reaps his lettuce, Ali washes them, not in plastic containers or metal drums which may have bacteria, but in stainless steel sinks which reduces the chance of bacteria getting on the leaves.
A third generation farmer with a passion for the land, Ali is a member of the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) and has been invited to tell students at the University of the West Indies why his lettuce is different.
His lettuce, sold mostly to retailers at the Arima and Tunapuna markets may not reach everyone and he tries to educate farmers on how to produce a healthy crop, he said.
“I am trying to get my lettuce in high end groceries and restaurants,” he said.
But being a successful businessman is not Ali’s number one priority. It’s helping people, he said. Through the ASTT, he was helping young men in the at risk community of Windy Hill in his area get on the right path through agriculture.
“They started planting but because of lack of funding the project stalled. One of the young men was later arrested in connection with the murder of a Diego Martin taxi driver.
“What really bothers me is that he is going to rot in jail.”
Ali is also helping to “settle” a group of young men at the Arouca Government Primary School.
“I believe some agriculture at the back of the school will help get them settled, and one or two rabbits to give them sense of responsibility.” He and the ASTT are even trying with preschoolers. He said 100 pupils from the Sunshine Preschool in Arouca are into agriculture, too.
“Each child has a plastic bottle with his name on it and has to actually water his individual plant.” He said because of a lack of funding this project almost stopped. “I had to take out of my pocket to see it through.”
Ali said he and hot pepper king, Nawaz Karim, are also planning to work with the Sangre Grande Police Youth Club on another agriculture project with youth in that area.
“It’s a wonderful feeling knowing I could help somebody,” he said.