Caribbean “farmer-preneurs” — back to the land

Agriculture is an essential industry — how else do we feed ourselves? — but traditionally has been considered back-breaking, thankless, old-fashioned work. That’s starting to change, Erline Andrews reports, as a new generation of young Caribbean “farmer-preneurs” adopt the latest technological advances in one of human-kind’s oldest activities

Photo by Muph/Shutterstock.com

You probably won’t find someone more enthusiastic about farming than Rionda Godet. In a recent interview, Godet — a Bahamian attorney who’s a former broadcaster and beauty queen — sounded ready for her promotional video close-up: “I want to be a part of an advocacy programme that encourages every home to have a small garden,” she said. “Food that is grown by hand is healthier, it tastes better, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

Godet has been on TV, radio, and in print talking up what she calls “farmer-preneurship.” She’s part of a growing alternative agriculture movement in the Caribbean, whose adherents focus on organic produce and environmentally sustainable farming methods, often converting what they grow into unique food products. Godet has run Ridge Farms since 2009. It started after an order of tomatoes was left on her hands when a sale fell through. She made them into sauces, which were a hit. She went on to make pepper sauces and jellies.

One of her products, the Zango Nana Blue Blaze pepper jelly, was highlighted in the Wall Street Journal column “Bits & Bites” in 2012: “Packed with blueberries and a dose of bananas, it started out sweet, tangy, and a tad tart, then blazed a wonderfully wicked trail of fire on the back of the tongue.”

Godet sells her products at farmers markets in the Bahamas, an increasingly popular phenomenon in the Caribbean, and to hotels. Although her legal practice is still her main source of income, she makes a small profit from Ridge Farms, growing the goat peppers for her sauces in a thirty-five-by-twenty-five-foot greenhouse made out of plywood and micro-mesh.

When she first started, Godet used hydroponics, a soilless method of agriculture, but three years ago she started adding soil to the blend of pro mix and peat moss she’d been using. She continues to use drip irrigation, which saves water, and neem oil, a natural pesticide. “I love greenhouse farming,” says Godet. “It’s not your traditional farming that requires acres and acres of land.”

 

Hydroponics and greenhouses are forms of protected agriculture, defined as “modification of the natural environment to achieve optimal growth.” Across the region, the Caribbean Research and Development Institute (CARDI), the Caribbean Export Development Agency, and other national and regional bodies are encouraging protected agriculture through training and funding.

The most popular produce from protected agriculture, according to CARDI, are sweet peppers, tomatoes, pak choi, lettuce, cucumbers, and shadon beni (or cilantro), with some farmers exploring cauliflower, beans, carailli (bitter melon), chives, and hot pepper. “It’s an idea that’s growing,” says Godet of greenhouse farming in the Bahamas. “Within the last two years there has been a very strong drive towards food sustainability.”

Dr Wayne Ganpat, dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus, believes the drive is necessary. “Climate change is going to force us to change the face of agriculture and the practice of agriculture in the Caribbean,” says Ganpat, who wrote a book about the effects of climate change on the region, published two years ago. Among the predicted effects of changing weather patterns, says Ganpat, are periods of drought, higher temperatures, and more pests and diseases.

“Protected agriculture is one of the ways to manage the internal environment for crops to grow better,” he says. “You’re going to see smaller farmers doing protected agriculture in smaller parcels of land. The productivity is much more under a protected system. You’re going to see a lot more people getting into that.”

Entrepreneurs and corporations will try farming because it will no longer be about “slaving under the hot sun,” says Ganpat, describing the factory-like conditions of grow rooms in China and Japan, with crops growing under LED lights, which make it no longer necessary to rely on natural sunlight. “The human resource in agriculture is changing. A lot more young people are going into agriculture. It’s become a little more technological,” Ganpat explains. “A lot more institutions are putting out graduates. They’re going to be the future producers. The age profile and education profile of the typical farmer is going to change.”

“Value addition” is another challenge for the modern farmer, adds Ganpat. To be competitive, farmers have to package their goods in ways that lengthen their shelf life and are more convenient for consumers. For Caribbean agricultural entrepreneurs, jams and jellies are the most popular ways to do this, but Ganpat would like to see them do more. UWI, for instance, is experimenting with different kinds of flours, including some made from bananas and breadfruit.

“If you bring your product in a form that is ready for the consumer to cook, you get more money for your product,” he says. “If you don’t do it at an individual level, people have to get together and probably do it in terms of cooperatives or groups.”

Yaphene, a company in St Kitts, is a sterling example of value-adding. The small farm, run by Anastasha Elliot and her mother and siblings, produces a panoply of products from organically grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers. That includes sauces, salad dressings, and wines, as well as shampoos, conditioners, and perfumes.

It’s the family’s main source of income, and a long way from what Elliot thought she would do, growing up in an environment where farming was “not thought of as a viable career.” Elliot decided to build on the family’s background in farming, dating back to her great-grandmother and the fertile land on which they lived.

“You’re using up the food and you’re getting the health benefits,” she says of what Yaphene does. “I wanted to offer something sustainable, something that would benefit our customers over the long haul.” She hopes to get funding to build a greenhouse, which would be better for the farm’s orchids.

Like Godet, Elliot’s combination of creativity and conscientiousness represents the future of farming. “Yesterday’s farming required acres and acres of land. Today’s farming does not,” Godet explains. “Yesterday’s farming required specialists. Today’s farming does not. Yesterday’s farming required volumes and volumes of produce to make it a worthwhile venture. Today’s farming doesn’t. You only need enough to sustain your home and maybe a small market of people.

“Everyone can be a farmer,” she added.