Our imports of fresh and frozen vegetables, roots and tubers for 2010 were valued at $24.8M to which can be added $38.9 M in preparations of vegetables, fruit and nuts. I am assuming that this category contains agro processed products derived from vegetables, fruits and nuts.
If we break these figures down further, we will find that although there are some of the imported crops which we might find it difficult to grow locally on a commercial scale, e.g garlic, iceberg lettuce, brussels sprouts and snow peas, there are many which we have proved that we can grow successfully and at a competitive price. Therefore, I am asking: In 2010 why did we need to import – $0.5M in tomatoes, $2.3M in onions, $ 0.1M in cauliflower, $3.5M in broccoli, $0.9M in cabbage $0.7M in lettuce (apart from the iceberg which is not well suited to our conditions) $1.3M in carrots, $50,570 in beets, $62,661 in cucumbers, about $50,000 in beans, $139,000 in asparagus, $7,000 in eggplant, $0.5M in celery, $0.3M in sweet peppers, $0.3M in zucchini , $ 0.4M in pumpkins and 0.M in root crops (eddoes, cassava, sweet potato and yam)?
As far back as 2006, the Government recognized the fact that it was possible to reduce our imports, and in its Economic and Financial Policies presented by the then Minister of Finance in January of that year, a list of 16 agricultural commodities in which Barbados could become self sufficient was noted. Of the vegetable crops, those listed included hot pepper, onion, the cucurbits (cucumber, melon and pumpkin), sweet potato, yam, cassava and eddoes, sweet pepper, fresh herbs, tomato, beans, crucifers (cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli) and okra. Although no mention was made of beet and carrot which are relatively easy crops to produce and romaine lettuce which we know is already being produced locally, I am confident that we can also be self sufficient in these crops.
It is also possible to grow mushrooms locally to replace some, if not all, the imports . We have done it before on several occasions on a pilot basis, but it seems difficult to find someone who will take the plunge and attempt it commercially. We imported 09M kg of white potato valued at $7M in 2010. In the past, we grew this crop and produced good quality potatoes but yields tended to be a bit low to make the crop viable on a large scale. This is not to say that we should not be researching the crop again since new varieties more suited to our conditions may now be available. We have also produced excellent sweet corn, ( we imported $73,790 in 2010) but the cost of pest control is quite high and therefore it is not a first choice in the import substitution programme. We have also grown excellent quality asparagus on a commercial scale, yet we imported asparagus worth $139,000 in 2010.
Of course agriculture is a high risk business and we will not become self sufficient if we leave it to chance. We need to systematically match the markets with the suppliers, plan the planting programme, issue contracts to farmers, have technical support systems for farmers, and last but not least, have a public/private sector co-ordinating body to oversee the process which must be implemented in a disciplined manner.
Furthermore, based on our experience in recent years with the unpredictability of the weather, we need to encourage more protected agriculture. Farmers should not be totally at the mercy of heavy rains which bring a myriad of diseases and pests. Protected agriculture does not necessarily mean sophisticated green houses with hydroponics, but can mean a simple structure which protects crops from torrential rains and other risks like birds, rodents, wild rabbits and monkeys. Of course these structures are also easier to police than open fields from the point of view of praedial larceny. On the other hand, there are a number of greenhouses already constructed which are not in use or under utilised. These need to be put into full operation to produce crops on a continuous basis.
There are farmers currently producing in greenhouses who are supplying high end hotels and restaurants with the required quality of product, and over the last year we have proved that we can supply product of the required standard to cruise ships.
What we need now, is a larger group of farmers willing to take on the challenge of reducing this import bill systematically by producing in a disciplined manner and according to a carefully detailed plan.