By LARRY SMITH
OPENING the newspaper this week, I was confronted with a huge load of BS.
American food store operator Sandy Schaefer (who closed his loss-making Robin Hood outlet on Harrold Road just a year ago), is now on a mission to re-open in the same location under a new name.
That in itself would be curious enough, but there’s more. Schaeffer says his new store will be able to cut food prices by 20 to 60 per cent, due to his new purchasing contacts in the US combined with “vertical control” of his supply chain.
What does the latter mean? Well, Schaeffer is pursuing a $1.5 billion agricultural development on Andros, that he says will make the Bahamas self-sufficient in an entire range of foodstuffs, including meat. The project will supposedly generate $2 billion in revenue and employ some 10,000 people.
This is reminiscent of a 2008 proposal by developer Tony Joudi to grow corn on hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the Bahamas. He wanted to clear our remaining forests so we could make ethanol to run our sport utility vehicles on our over-congested roads.
And you may recall the proposal three years ago to hand over 5,000 acres of prime land on Abaco to the Chinese to grow vegetables, fruit and livestock while operating a cannery, processing plant and abattoir? A Chinese team actually visited the site back then, but nothing has come of it so far.
A few years earlier, someone suggested a cock-eyed scheme to grow rice in the brackish mangrove wetlands of Andros. And believe it or not, that idea has recently resurfaced – along with Cuban experts said to be working with the government to set up another farming school in the Big Yard.
“Agriculture can be the basis for the economic sustainability of many of our Family Island communities,” says Godfrey Eneas, a former agriculture director who is now a Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation consultant.
“As a result of that, people will not have to migrate to New Providence because we can create jobs within these communities.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Only it has never worked out that way.
In his 1998 book, Agriculture in the Bahamas (a second edition of which is now being published), Eneas cites statistics showing a fall in the tiny percentage of the work force that is employed in agriculture – from 4.4 per cent in 1970 to 4 per cent in 2011. And most of those workers would be – you guessed it – Haitian migrants.
In spite of this, Eneas, along with current BAIC chief Arnold Forbes, former BAIC chief Edison Key and many, many others continue to insist that our economic future and cultural identity can only be assured if we take steps to produce more of the $500 million of foodstuffs we import every year.
And for anyone who remembers the “good old days” when granny and pa harvested fresh fruit and vegetables in their backyard, it is tempting to believe that these glowing projections can be achieved.
In fact, these calls for agricultural development have been made for as long as I can remember. As an official speechwriter at the Bahamas News Bureau in the 1970s and 80s, I wrote about linkages between agriculture and tourism so often it became boilerplate – something to be inserted at the appropriate point in every text.
So how accurate is all this? Are we really missing out on a massive economic bonanza?
Well, Andros is usually cited as the “breadbasket” of the Bahamas – the Big Yard, the continent to the west, the island with the greatest potential for farming. In fact, the BAIC is now talking about setting up a farming school on Andros.
The proposed location is where the country’s first agriculture school was located – on 2,000 acres of virgin land near San Andros. In 1973 this project was heralded as “the capstone of Bahamian agricultural self-sufficiency”, and funded by a $10 million grant from the United States.
Two American universities provided technical support and the brightest young Bahamian technocrats were enlisted to help run the project – including former cabinet minister Earl Deveaux, who is a trained agronomist.
Back then, the Bahamas Agricultural Research, Training and Development Centre had a herd of 300 Santa Gertrudis cattle from Texas, and a flock of 600 sheep to improve the country’s breeding stock. The project included a 500-acre research farm, 16 model farms of up to 80 acres each, credit facilities, marketing support, and training programmes. Among the crops researched were soybeans, corn and sorghum as well as citrus, avocados and mangoes.
Initially, the Centre provided all the inputs and guaranteed incomes, after which farmers were given a long-term land lease and credit facilities with local banks. A co-operative was formed to acquire machinery and crops were marketed through the government packing house. A training facility with a modern library was also on site.
But by the late 1980s – after the Americans left – the project had dwindled to nothing. Horses and livestock were left to starve, and expensive equipment discarded to rust. The machine shop, training centre and other central facilities were abandoned. And government officials, including then agriculture minister Perry Christie, sought to cover up the failure.
The supreme irony is that according to a 2011 economic impact study, the impact of agriculture on Andros today is no more than $1.23 million annually – or about 1 per cent of the overall economic impact from all activities on the island. In fact, farming had the lowest revenue-per-person-employed out of all activities on the island.
In other words, we can earn more from crabs than crops.
“From our work, it is clear that 60 per cent of the Androsian economy is linked directly to the island’s natural resources – which is astonishing,” said Dr Venetia Hargreaves-Allen of Imperial College, London. “The long-term impact of depleting these resources will affect everyone’s livelihood, so their future security needs to be addressed by protecting forests, reefs, creeks, crabs and bonefish.”
So what is the current reality of farming in the Bahamas?
Agricultural production accounts for less than 2 per cent of the Bahamian economy, despite the fact that some 37,000 acres of cleared land has been earmarked for low-cost agricultural leases of up to 41 years – mostly on Andros, Abaco and Grand Bahama.
About a quarter of this land has been leased to farmers, but according to a 2009 government audit even those leases are mostly not in production.
The value of local crop production in 2007 was about $42 million, of which only a fraction was exported (mostly citrus). Meanwhile, imports of vegetables and fruit were valued at $46.4 million. Livestock production – poultry, pork, sheep and goats for local consumption – was valued at less than $20 million in 2007.
The Department of Agriculture receives over $7 million in the government’s budget. This money goes to support a backyard farming programme, road and well construction for farmers, loan guarantees, and the provision of fertilizer, pesticides, packaging materials, livestock feed, fencing and technical services. Farmers are also subsidized by duty exemptions on supplies and equipment.
For the benefit of farmers, the Department operates the abattoir, the Gladstone Road Agricultural Centre, the Produce Exchange, seven packing houses on four islands, a crop safety unit, and a plant propagation unit, as well as extension services. The BAIC is a related agency that supports agricultural production and marketing throughout the islands with a separate budget.
However, by the Ministry’s own account, agricultural policies have had minimal impact. Economies of scale are difficult to achieve, and most farmers cannot produce enough, consistently enough, to sustain direct sales to wholesalers and retailers.
“Grading standards, storage facilities and a strong infrastructure for delivering products to market (are) monumental challenges,” according to the Department’s 2009 Agricultural Sector Plan.
Other issues include poor crop management, record-keeping, and technology; reliance on immigrant labour; lack of financing, and inadequate market knowledge. Labour costs of a measly $150 per week are considered expensive by most farmers, the Department says.
Agricultural processing faces similar problems, as well as food safety and standardisation issues, and high energy and insurance costs.
In other words, despite decades of government support, commercial agriculture in the Bahamas is a difficult and uncompetitive enterprise that few Bahamians are interested in pursuing. And without Haitian labour, the sector would collapse overnight.
Clearly, food self-sufficiency for the Bahamas is an illusion. Bahamian conditions are simply not conducive to commercial agriculture. Pineapple fields for example, had to remain fallow for 15 to 20 years after producing only a few crops, and the industry was never large enough to justify a regular steamship run (as the banana trade did in the West Indies and Central America).
Bahamian soils are dry, thin and patchy – making them suitable only for traditional shifting cultivation or pothole farming, experts say. Mechanised agriculture is restricted by frequent outcrops of bare rock. Water resources are scarce, and crops require heavy irrigation.
To pursue commercial farming, the ground must be specially prepared by heavy machinery at great cost, and large amounts of chemical inputs are required, which can and do pollute the water table.
More to the point, food security is an illusion because the necessary inputs for commercial farming themselves must be imported – fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides. Suppose the boat with the fertiliser stops coming? Or the plane with the seeds? Or the ship with the tractor and pump on board?”
Other countries in the region (like Mexico or the Dominican Republic) can produce vastly cheaper product than we can. And government guarantees and purchases only as a disincentive to efficient producers. Import restrictions limit consumer choice and result in higher food prices.
Only last year, Lucayan Tropical general manager Tim Hauber said he would be lucky to break even. Last year was about the same, and before that, the company incurred “serious losses” trying to carve a niche for itself in providing fresh produce to food stores and restaurants.
“My perspective is it’s almost impossible to make money in farming in this country, other than a few niche markets,” Tauber said. “Those that can grow and sell directly to consumers might find a place. But once you go on a larger scale, it is very difficult to make money,”
So it is simply counterfactual to suggest that agriculture can provide the large-scale economic returns that the country requires to develop, although small farming operations focusing on tourism may work.
Two good examples of this are Goodfellow’s Farm near the Lynden Pindling International Airport, and the three-year-old Freetown Farm on Gand Bahama. They practice a form of market gardening. Goodfellow’s has a restaurant and farm shop to create a successful boutique destination. And the 20-acre Freetown Farm offers tours and horse riding, in addition to selling eggs, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
To me, the conclusion is clear. Instead of wasting time, effort and resources on what can only be a niche activity at best, we should recognise and protect the immense value stored in our natural environment and cultural heritage, and leverage that value through carefully planned, low-impact tourism.
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