by Larry Smith
Lately, there's been a rash of calls for Bahamians to turn to large-scale farming to address skyrocketing fuel and food prices.
A developer named Tony Joudi made several attempts to get the government to back his cock-eyed scheme to grow corn on hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the country.
He was asking us to clear our remaining forests so we could make ethanol to run our expensive sport utility vehicles on our over-congested roads.
More recently, strange noises have been made about growing rice in our brackish mangrove wetlands by none other than the Minister of Agriculture himself (who should know better).
And according to Edison Key, a one-time citrus farmer from Abaco who is now chairman of the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation, "we are trying to fast forward the agricultural sector - we just need to get serious."
Thankfully, we have yet to hear calls for Bahamian pothole farmers to plant wheat fields to help lower the price of imported flour.
Food self-sufficiency for the Bahamas is an illusion. The fact is that ever since the failure of the loyalist plantations, large-scale agriculture has never worked here, despite brief exceptions such as the export trade in pineapples and sisal during the 19th century.
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).
Pineapple farmers faced the same problems of soil exhaustion and pests that the loyalists had faced before them. And competition from more efficient producers in America, Cuba and the Phillipines put an end to both the pineapple and sisal industries by the early 20th century.
Even subsistence agriculture is a problem in the Bahamas. Historians Michael Craton and Gail Saunders note that the predominant out island economy from emancipation to the 20th century was a shifting form of peasant farming.
"The practices of rotational slash and burn agriculture and the overcropping of the meagre surface vegetation by livestock hastened the process whereby the land became insufficient even for a steady population," they wrote in Islanders in the Stream.
Bahamians were "rooted to a soil that gave heartbreakingly meagre returns for the most backbreaking toil...There was nothing romantic about out island subsistence farming in the late 19th century. At best it was a triumph of necessity against the most unfavourable conditions - poor soil, harsh climate, natural disasters, animal pests."
Before the Second World War, about a third of all Bahamians were considered farmers - a figure which fell to about 10 per cent by the 1950s. In 2005 there were only about 1200 people classified as farmers in the entire country. And it is clear that without Haitian labour even these would be unable to survive.
Nevertheless, there have been ringing calls for a diversification of the Bahamian economy away from tourism and finance for as long as I can remember. As an official speechwriter at the Bahamas News Bureau in the 1970s, I wrote about linkages between agriculture and tourism so often it became boilerplate - something to be inserted at the appropriate point in every text.
The Pindling regime was big on talk about national self-sufficiency and the development of farming on the out islands. And in fact, there were two major agricultural developments initiated by the government during the Independence period, when nationalist fires were stoked to their highest point.
In 1936 an American investor named Austin Levy had set up a dairy and poultry farm on thousands of acres at Hatchet Bay on Eleuthera, supplying milk, eggs and ice cream to the Nassau market for decades. His plantation provided much of the infrastructure and prosperity for nearby Alice Town, including a general store, a yacht club and a power plant.
But Hatchet Bay Farm was taken over by the government in 1975, with much fanfare. According to former prime minister Sir Lynden Pindling, it was to become "the greatest success story in Bahamian agricultural history", but it closed in disarray nine years later and was never resuscitated.
In 1973, on 2000 acres of virgin land on Andros, an even bigger project was launched with even greater fanfare, heralded as "the capstone of Bahamian agricultural self-sufficiency".
The Bahamas Agricultural Research Centre was funded by a $10 million Independence gift from the United States to develop commercial agriculture based on family farming. Two American universities provided technical support and the best and brightest young Bahamian technocrats were enlisted to help run the project - including Earl Deveaux, the present minister of works.
BARC had a herd of 300 Santa Gertrudis cattle from Texas and a flock of 600 sheep used 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, avocadoes and mangoes.
The farmers planted citrus, plantains, winter vegetables and feed crops for sheep, goats, and hogs. Initially, BARC provided all the inputs and guaranteed incomes. Farmers were then given a long-term land lease and credit facilities with local banks. A co-operative was formed to acquire machinery and produce was marketed through the government packing house. A training facility with a modern library was also included.
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. Government officials, including then agriculture minister Perry Christie, tried to cover up the failure.
As a Tribune editorial railed at the time: "The government talks constantly of diversification; of developing agriculture to the point where Bahamians can feed themselves. But really they are not serious. look at the rotting fish landing complex on Potters Cay, Hatchet Bay and the Andros farms and realise that they are taking you, the public, for fools."
Aside from political interference, our small labour force and the general disinterest most Bahamians have today in making a living from the soil, agriculture is a complex business that requires a great deal of infrastructure to distribute the crops and livestock that are produced. And the biggest drawbacks in the Bahamas have always been transportation and marketing.
Food processing requires consistent production of high volumes of quality produce. The same is true for hotels and other large consumers of produce. According to geographer Neil Sealey, in his text book, The Bahamas Today, our failure to develop a modern agricultural sector is due to a number of factors, including the reality that the Bahamas is a nation of merchants with a history of living on imported staples.
Other reasons are competition from the United States, which produces huge farm surpluses at low cost only 50 miles from the nearest Bahamian island, and the limitations of our natural environment.
Bahamian soils are poor, thin and patchy - making them suitable in their natural state only for traditional shifting cultivation, 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 at great cost and large amounts of fertiliser are required.
In short, agriculture is a difficult and costly enterprise that few Bahamians are interested in pursuing.
But some commentators have suggested that the real reason we don't feed ourselves more is because of a racist business conspiracy against poor black Bahamians.
Last month Tribune columnist Adrian Gibson said successive governments had "slighted" Bahamian agriculture (completely overlooking the potted history presented above). He included suggestions that the "merchant elite" had orchestrated this in order to maintain its economic control.
And now we are talking about rice paddies in the creeks of Andros. When will it end?
Obama vs McCain
Well, we are living in history-making times.
The American presidential election is very likely to be contested by an inexperienced 46-year-old bi-racial lawyer with an arabic name and a hardbitten 72-year-old Scots-Irish ex-POW with a penchant for climate change.
Frankly, it's the most interesting presidential race in memory.
Unlike other African-Americans who have run for president, like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Barak Obama's campaign is real rather than symbolic. And most Bahamians seem to be waiting with bated breath in trembling anticipation of a black man in the White House.
As columnist George Will said "(Obama) has chosen his racial identity, but chosen not to make it matter much." And in many ways his success at (almost) gaining the Democratic nomination refutes the theory of social determinism popular with many black leaders in the US.
McCain is a third generation naval officer who was held prisoner by the Vietnamese communists for over five years after bombing the hell out of them. He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and later returned to Vietnam as part of the normalisation process carried out by the Clinton administration.
According to one comparison of the two men by the New York Times, "Obama wrote 'very bad poetry' in college. McCain once contemplated joining the French Foreign Legion. Obama is the former rebel, who used to hang out with friends who wore leather jackets and stayed up late discussing 'neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy.' McCain is the hell-raiser who hides an introspective bent behind his pose as a cocky flyboy."
But the most interesting aspect of this campaign is the message it sends about the evolution of racial politics in America. According to Obama, "it is a profoundly distorted view that white racism is endemic...but race is an issue we cannot afford to ignore. We need to work through the complexities of race.
"We don't have to recite the past injustices, but we have to recognise that the past has made the present.
"Blacks must not become victims of the past and must take full responsibility for their own lives. America can change - that is the true genius of the nation. In no other country on Earth would my story be possible."
"And despite all temptations to view my candidacy through purely racial lines, we won commanding victories among white Americans."
It is a message that we should be receptive to in the Bahamas.