Food Economy read more

Farming for all

A local entrepreneur wants to reduce Barbados' dependence on food imports

Barbados farming movement

Barbados has a dirty little secret hidden by pristine beaches and luxury resorts. It has a costly dependence on food imports that’s hurting its economy.

The tiny island of less than 300,000 people spends about $321 million a year on food imports, despite having enough farmable land to grow produce for its entire population and more than half a million of tourists that visit each year.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), agriculture is a declining sector in Barbados and imports of food “have increased substantially in the last ten years, due to increasing food demand from tourism.” But one man is trying to change that.

Mood Patel is a documentary filmmaker turned farmer. I met him at his hotel, Ocean Spray Apartments, that he’s owned for two decades. About three years ago, he bought land in the middle of the island. The plan was to start a farm, serve the fruit and vegetables to his guests at Ocean Spray and eventually grow enough produce to sell to stores.  

Part of Mood Patel's farm land in Barbados

“In Barbados we import bananas, we import mangoes from St. Vincent,” said Patel. “Most Barbadians are of African descent. Agriculture reminds us of slavery. To be involved in planting food and working in the sun, it’s a remembrance of that time.”

Since achieving independence in 1966, Barbados has transformed from a country rooted in farming to one focused primarily on tourism. The idea was that tourism would help the country become an upper-middle class economy and it did. Tourism in Barbados employs more than 14,000 people, and makes up 12 percent of the country’s GDP.

Before that, Barbados’ main industry was sugarcane production. About 37 percent of the country’s arable land was used to plant sugarcane. But because of the shift away from agriculture towards tourism, sugarcane farming slowly died out.

Now most of Barbados’ farms are deserted and overgrown with trees and wild flora. A 2010 report by the country’s Environment Minister says Barbados is one of the few countries that has reforested itself naturally because those fields were left untended.

Patel is determined to help his home country become self-sustainable.

“When the government was stepping away from farming and saying we should focus on tourism, I thought it was wrong,” said Patel. “We stopped producing our own fruits and vegetables.”

His 53 acres farm is a 30 minute drive from Ocean Spray Apartments.  It’s on a hill in a tropical forest. From the top, you can see the ocean.

Mood Patel showing the writer his crop

He took a group of us up there one day.

“This is curry leaf, this is dragon fruit,” Patel said as he walked us through the nursery. “We propagate them here, eventually we’ll plant them out in a bed.”

Patel has around 40 different types of fruit growing—500 coconut trees, 1,000 plantain and banana trees, 40 avocado trees etc. He’s even experimenting with some foreign plants.

“This is agave. In case I was to start making some tequila,” Patel laughed. “I’m just messing around with it though.”

Since many of the island’s farms have turned wild, Patel’s theory is that a lot of the native plant species have been lost. A yellow variety of ginger known as “Bajan ginger” and a small dark purple plum called jamun are just some of the produce that can’t be found at the market anymore. Patel wants to bring them back.

“Most of the ginger comes from China,” said Patel. “We [he and his two employees] went all around the island. We looked in gullies [overgrown fields and ravines] and dug up the old ginger and brought it back here.”

He’s even knocked on people’s doors asking them if he could cut a branch from an overgrown fruit tree in their backyard.

“There was an older guy that used to grow pineapples in Barbados. He died and then the whole product was abandoned. I went by his sister and I bought all the pineapples and brought them back here and we’ve been growing them. Again nobody plants pineapples in Barbados, maybe two or three guys.”

We walk up a small hill and then Patel leads us down a slope to show us the banana trees.

Banana trees growing on Mood Patel's farm

With all the rain Barbados has received this year, including the flash flooding at the end of November, there have been landslides on the farm. Chunks of property completely washed out, trees uprooted and crops lost.

“People told me I was crazy, that I was buying gully,” said Patel. “That the return on investment is low and that I’d be better off building more apartments at Ocean Spray.”

Barbados isn’t the only Caribbean country to experience a decrease in farming and an increase in food imports as it shifts towards tourism. Jamaica, The Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago are all in the same boat. By importing most of their produce, they are vulnerable when prices go up or when there are problems with external providers.

“If the workers at one of the ports in Miami go on strike, we won’t have any food,” said Patel.

A 2015 report by the FAO stated that “Barbados faces the challenge of ensuring its population has adequate access to stable food supplies.” For the last two decades it’s been working with the island to increase domestic food production. But that doesn’t seem to be working. Last year the government of Barbados found that the food and sugar production sector experienced the largest decline of about 38 percent.

“Tourism is the biggest sector in the economy,” said Patel. “I have to marry this farm with tourism. At some point I should open it to tours so people can see how things grow. I also want to start making more artisanal products and selling things like ginger banana jam.”

In two years Patel’s hope is to have all of the food at Ocean Spray come from his own farm and eventually, to sell his produce at local markets. “Maybe I am crazy, but I see so much value in what I’m doing for my country.”

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