by Larry Smith
Year after year there are ringing calls for the Bahamas to invest more and do more to develop agriculture.
In 2001, former Central Bank researcher Gabriella Fraser observed that Bahamian agriculture had "hardly evolved" over time, and asked whether enough effort was being made to achieve food security.
Environmental advocate Sam Duncombe argued in a recent online exchange that If we don't invest in agriculture and manufacturing, Bahamians will be condemned to "a life of servitude and dependence."
Dr Marikis Alvarez of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation recently said agriculture could make a "huge contribution" to the Bahamian economy - if only we would inject enough funds into the sector to make it work.
Farmer's association president Keith Campbell says we need to focus on food security and "fully protect" Bahamian farmers from imports.
Lawyer, physician and sometime politician Dr Dexter Johnson insists we can feed ourselves - and produce a surplus for export.
Visioneer John Bostwick says that with better management we could easily achieve food self-sufficiency, and even replace oil imports with our own bio-energy crops.
BAIC chief Edison Key says agriculture could be "the catalyst for economic diversification" by substituting local products for $500 million of imported foodstuffs.
Meanwhile, the government's sector development plan argues that agriculture can be "repositioned as a strong pillar of the Bahamian economy".
And for anyone who remembers the "good old days" when granny and pa harvested fresh fruit and vegetables from their backyard, it is easy to believe that these projections can be fulfilled.
So how accurate is all this? Are we really missing out on a massive economic bonanza?
Well, Andros is usually cited as the "breadbasket" of the Bahamas - the big yard, the continent to the west, the home of BARTAD and BARC, the island with the greatest potential for farming.
But a recent economic impact study by Dr Venetia Hargreaves-Allen found that agriculture has a gross impact of only $1.23 million annually - about 1 per cent of the overall impact from all activities on Andros. In fact, farming had the lowest revenue per-person-employed out of all activities on the island. In other words, you can earn more from crabs than crops.
"From our work, it is clear that 60 per cent of the Androsian economy is linked directly to the island's natural resources - which is astonishing," Hargreaves-Allen said. "The long-term impact of depleting these resources will affect everyone's livelihood, so their future security needs to be addressed by protecting forests, reefs, creeks, crabs and bonefish."
And what is the current reality of farming in the Bahamas?
Agricultural production accounts for less than 2 per cent of the Bahamian economy, despite the fact that some 37,000 acres of cleared land has been earmarked for low-cost agricultural leases of up to 41 years - mostly on Andros, Abaco and Grand Bahama.
About a quarter of this land has been leased to farmers, but according to a 2009 government audit even those leases are mostly not in production.
The value of local crop production in 2007 was about $42 million, of which only a fraction was exported (mostly citrus). Meanwhile, imports of vegetables and fruit were valued at $46.4 million. Livestock production - poultry, pork, sheep and goats for local consumption - was valued at less than $20 million in 2007.
The Department of Agriculture received over $7 million in the current budget. This money goes to support a backyard farming programme, road and well construction for farmers, loan guarantees, and the provision of fertilizer, pesticides, packaging materials, livestock feed, fencing and technical services. Farmers are also subsidized by duty exemptions on supplies and equipment.
For the benefit of farmers, the Department operates the abbatoir, the Gladstone Road Agricultural Centre, the Produce Exchange, seven packing houses on four islands, a crop safety unit, and a plant propagation unit, as well as extension services. The Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation is a related agency that supports agricultural production and marketing throughout the islands with a separate budget.
However, by the Ministry's own account, agricultural policies have had minimal impact. Economies of scale are difficult to achieve, and most farmers cannot produce enough, consistently enough, to sustain direct sales to wholesalers and retailers.
"Grading standards, storage facilities and a strong infrastructure for delivering products to market (are) monumental challenges", according to the Department's 2009 Agricultural Sector Plan.
Other issues include poor crop management, record-keeping, and technology; reliance on immigrant labour; lack of financing, and inadequate market knowledge. Labour costs of a measly $150 per week are considered expensive by most farmers, the Department says.
Agricultural processing faces similar problems, as well as food safety and standardization issues and high energy and insurance costs.
In other words, despite decades of government support, commercial agriculture in the Bahamas is a difficult and uncompetitive enterprise that few Bahamians are interested in pursuing. And without Haitian labour, the sector would vanish overnight.
Food self-sufficiency for the Bahamas is an illusion. 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).
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. "At best it was a triumph of necessity against the most unfavourable conditions - poor soil, harsh climate, natural disasters, animal pests."
Bahamian soils are dry, thin and patchy - making them suitable only for traditional shifting cultivation or pothole farming, 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 by heavy machinery at great cost, and large amounts of chemical inputs are required, which can and do pollute the water table.
More obviously, food security is an illusion because the necessary inputs for commercial farming themselves must be imported - fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides.
As former agricultural officer John Hedden wrote recently, "Environmental pollution is guaranteed. And still no security or self sufficiency. Suppose the boat with the fertiliser stops coming? Or the plane with the seeds? Or the ship with the tractor and pump on board?"
Other countries in the region (like Mexico or the Dominican Republic) can produce vastly cheaper product than is posible in the Bahamas. And government guarantees and purchases only act as a disincentive to efficient producers. Import restrictions limit consumer choice and result in higher food prices.
"Clearly, there is no proven formula for success in agriculture in the Bahamas," writes geographer Neil Sealey. "The key is understanding the limitations and taking advantage of the opportunities. Production close to a market which can provide fresh produce of good quality clearly has a market advantage."
Lucayan Tropical and Goodfellow Farms on New Providence, and Lightbourne Farms on Abaco, are good examples - relying on hydroponic cultivation to one degree or another. They practice a form of market gardening, and in the case of Goodfellow's (near the airport) the addition of a restaurant and farm shop have created a successful boutique destination.
So it is counterfactual to suggest that agriculture can provide the large-scale economic returns that the country requires to develop. Small farming operations focusing on tourism may work, but as John Hedden put it:
"Agriculture in the Bahamas has never been a long-term profitable business. So we all went sponging. And we still do, but these days we sponge off the mainly North American tourists."
Instead of wasting time, effort and resources on what can only be a niche activity at best, we should recognize and protect the immense value stored in our natural environment and cultural heritage, and leverage that value through carefully planned, low-impact tourism.