In my previous article I touched upon the use of technology in Bahamian agriculture; where its application has been most successful (Andros), and why (education).
In this article it will be natural to follow on with the advantage of a strong infrastructure; both physical and logistical. First I will deal with the physical side.
This must include access to land, roads,transport and communications, utilities and energy, and equipment.
Access to land is obvious and essential. Access to private land is usually not feasible unless the farmer uses, or rents land; in which case the competition in value from real estate sales will be real and tempting. An example can be seen next to us in Florida where the Homestead area has been changing from an agricultural community to residential/commercial. Why? Simply because land owners can earn more money from selling real estate than using the land for farming and the returns it generates. Here in the Bahamas that pressure is possibly even greater.
So that leaves other types of land. In the coppice islands generation and commonage properties allow indigenous people access and use of the land but never outright title. This in itself is restrictive because of competition for land from other members of the community. Again, these islands have little crown land of agricultural value to offer for lease.
In the northern islands many thousands of acres of pine and previously forested land is available for farming, and fortunately most of this is public (crown ) land. So thousands of acres of previously cleared and farmed land are available on Andros, Abaco, and Grand Bahama; where ample fresh water is easily accessible for irrigation. So why has all this land not been taken up by farming enterprises? The first hurdle comes with the 'lease' of the land from the government through the ministry of agriculture. There is apparently no system in place for legal leases to be prepared and issued to farmers; and farmers are reluctant to invest in an agricultural enterprise without the relevant documentation in hand. Of those that do farm the land fewer still are prepared to build and live on the farm without that essential piece of paper. This means that travel between the settlement and the farm can be time consuming and fuel expensive, and leaves the property open to the two legged critters, come harvest time. In addition wild hogs, cattle, and horses become a pest in some farming areas. So the end result is little investment is made; and farmers try to implement the inherited, and traditional, slash and burn system of subsistence production on a twenty five acre block of previously 'cleared' land 'leased' from the crown. This is much, much larger than the traditional 'task' or quarter acre used in previous times. It does not, and can not work.
A more technologically advanced system demands more efficient communication and access to information and physical inputs. Again these are sorely lacking and unavailable to the small farmer. Farm roads are mostly in very poor condition and subject to the vagaries of the politics of the day. Inter island shipping through the contracted mail carriers is inefficient and unable to deliver any volume of perishable farm goods to the other end in good condition.
The ministry runs outlets such as the produce exchange and fish and farm store, both on Potter's Cay, and sadly neither operate in any way close to their intended purpose. Why? No real alternatives are presented, and the island packing house system has never functioned properly.
For livestock production and processing the situation is even more miserable. It doesn't even exist. The abattoir is exactly what its name implies, a place where slaughter and processing are prehistoric and often considered barbaric. No institutions exist in any of the out islands to even remotely accommodate animal husbandry. No veterinary services, no extension services, no slaughter and processing facilities, and no storage or marketing services.
Access to utilities and energy is mostly absent in the designated farming areas. This naturally puts up farm operator costs, and limits access to timely information needs. One example would be the need for on farm power to access internet for market prices and accessibility.
As for energy, the cost of fuel is exorbitant for farmers using diesel for farm mechanisation, and gasoline for transportation. These along with poor road conditions puts more stress on potential farm prices due to operating and maintenance costs incurred as a result.
The use of equipment for farming is severely limited due to the lack of financial capabilities of operators. No land title means no collateral; means no financing; means no investment; means little income; means Big Problem. The co operative system, and government guaranteed loans have failed to help solve this because neither institution has been innovative towards agricultural enterprise. Both could have both provided much of the logistical and physical infrastructure needed.
On the logistical side of infrastructure farmer education, and extension services are critical for advances in farming systems. Unfortunately neither have been addressed and information on basic physical inputs such as crop irrigation and fertility regimes are not available for farmer assistance. Many islands including Abaco do not even have a viable extension officer.
At the other end, the farmer must actively seek out markets, which are often on another island where a population centre exists. This involves further expense with travel, accommodation and eventually shipping costs. Again, no information is available concerning market demands, prices, seasonality due to consumer numbers, and changes in product preference with time of year. For example Bahamians do not eat vegetables, but foreign visitors usually do. And, by the way, macaroni and cheese is not a vegetable dish.
So these are some of the problems presented to the Bahamian with farming in the blood. It is not therefore surprising to find minimal small farm production in the islands even though there are several thousand registered farmers in the country. The obstacles to being successful as a farmer are immense and daunting. In addition the lack of departmental support amplifies the difficulties.
This merry go round results in a vicious circle of negatives which actively prevent the establishment of any genuine home grown small farming sector, even though the potential is there, and accessible. Don't the politicians keep on pointing out to us that there is a five hundred million dollar a year ( $500,000,000.00 ) market out there, and we need to do more about it? Talk of self sufficiency, food security, jobs, pride of production, and endless platitudes to the farming sector abound, but prove to be little more than hot air.
But my question remains. Where is the development of the infrastructural support systems for the agricultural industry? This can only come from the government, and it won't. We see periodic plans, as with the latest 5 year plan from the ministry of agriculture now going in to its second year. But nothing can be seen of this at ground level where most of us live. The only real impetus is coming from BAIC which is trying to streamline itself under the direction of its chairman, himself a successful agricultural businessman. Andros is leading in this respect, and hopefully other islands will follow behind.
As a final word in this article I will say that the political rhetoric and the lip service paid to farming is huge, but unfortunately this does not translate to active input or support for the sector. Rather our politicians would seem to encourage the foreign investor with the big agribusiness programmes, where Bahamians may be employed; as with the mega resort projects still being promoted throughout the country. We haven't yet lost that plantation mentality. Big agribusiness has not yet proved to be permanent, good for sustainable production, or even beneficial for the local entrepreneur. We still haven't cottoned on to the idea that small business enterprises, including agriculture, are the lifeblood of any economy.
In my next article I will present arguments for and against the development of a viable agricultural sector including land usage (our one remaining untapped resource) and the deleterious effects of poorly managed and monitored agriculture on land and ecological systems.
Mr. Hedden holds degrees in Botany from UWI Mona Campus and University of Reading UK and graduated from Government High School, Nassau, Bahamas. He has experience as a Horticulturalist for the USAID project BARTAD Andros, Horticulturalist for the Ministry of Agriculture at CAS (now GRAC), and then extension services. Mr. Hedden is now trying to establish a modern demonstration fruit and vegetable farm on 10 acres of 'crown' land. He presently lives on Abaco and has worked with farmers there for the last 25 years.