Hydroponics in Barbados

A key theme that emerges is that agriculture potentially benefits more proportionally than other sectors but also suffers more from constraints to benefiting

In the last column we promised to turn our attention to highlighting the successes which have been achieved in agriculture by a number of pro- active entrepreneurs, in spite of the constraints which exist in the agricultural industry. This week we will deal with the area of crop production.

It has been accepted that in order to reduce some of the risks involved in agriculture, a shift towards protected crop production should be encouraged. Some large and smaller farmers have taken the bold step and set up greenhouses of varying sophistication. One of these operations Natures™ Produce has a protected area of about 6 acres under hydroponic tomatoes, lettuce and other salad greens. A variety of culinary herbs is also produced in the open field. Only environmentally friendly chemicals are used in the production process.

Natures™ Produce has established links with the hotel, restaurant and supermarket trades which it supplies with high quality well packaged, branded produce on a consistent basis.
This continuity of supply requires detailed planning of production.

Although the technology being used does not allow total control of the environment, such variables as water temperature, pH and nutrient levels are controlled automatically using a computerized system.

But Natures™ Produce is not only interested in production for the local market. Its owner, Tim Walsh, is interested in export, and bearing in mind the difficulties with inter-island transport which have been with us from time immemorial, he has purchased a boat which he intends to use to transport produce between the Caribbean islands.

It is often said that for Caribbean agriculture to succeed in a globalised world, it must ensure that it deals in products in which it has a comparative advantage. Our comparative advantage in crops is freshness. The present produce imported from North America and farther afield is at least a week old when it arrives and a few days older when we purchase it. On the other hand, we can ship produce within the region in a matter of hours.

However, there is another hurdle which must be conquered, since it is hardly viable to ship lettuce alone within the region. There must be a mix of crops to make the operation viable. The challenge is to interest a group of reliable, efficient farmers who will agree to produce certain quantities of crops to a specified quality at a specified price and in a timely manner. This may sound easy, but putting it into practice requires considerable determination. If crops which Barbados does not produce, say pineapples, can be imported from Guyana, some left in Barbados, and the remainder combined with local lettuce and a variety of other vegetables, and transported say to St Lucia, then there will be benefits to everyone.

Natures™ Produce is also aiming to ship to the French Caribbean, and to this end it has acquired the necessary EUREP GAP certification. This is no mean achievement, and they must be congratulated, since the criteria are extremely stringent.
EUREP GAP is a system designed to achieve integrity and transparency in the verification process for primary product sold in the European Union. EUREP (Euro-Retailers Produce Working Group) is the organisation and GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) is the system.
As we said before, although there are success stories like Natures™ Produce, a number of constraints to crop production still exist, which must be addressed if these successes are to be extended. While some of the larger farmers may have access to modern technological information, all farmers should have access, facilitated initially by government.

As is noted by FAO in its publication – Globalisation and the traditional role of agriculture – low-income countries need to invest far more than at present in agricultural research and technology dissemination. Without such investment, opening markets will do little good for agriculture and hence for poverty reduction and food security.

Identifying supporting mechanisms such as research and training to minimise the exclusion of small resource poor farmers from value chains is also important. Initially, governments have to play a role in assisting the private sector by participating in the costs of market analysis, assisting in the development of trade associations that can diagnose needs, developing and enforcing grades and standards, meeting health regulations of high-income importers, diagnosing special niche markets and carrying out analysis of constraints.

Another area of support which needs to be addressed if we are to see continued success is the ready availability of efficient and effective diagnostic services for plant disease problems. At present this service is sadly lacking.

Although government does assist farmers with financial incentives like rebates on the cost of greenhouse and irrigation equipment, it needs to take a more active part in supporting the efforts of the private sector so that they will be encouraged to invest more heavily in the industry.

Natures™ Produce is an example which should encourage others to take greater risks in the agricultural sector, remembering that you cannot get growth without risk.

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