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Tropical Agriculture: A lesson in self-sufficiency

words: Tom Baumann


Headlines from every corner these days scream “local food”. In theory, this is just excellent and is a fantastic way to promote local farming, family farms, the Canadian brand and so much more. In reality, consumers say this is one of the most important issues to them when it comes to sourcing food, yet they want to consume good quality pineapples, strawberries, taro, oranges, bananas and tomatoes all year round, at a reasonable price.

Also, international trade makes it so easy to get anything at any time of the year. Does anyone still remember when strawberry season is? Do you really know when asparagus is in season? No? I am not surprised, and I don’t blame you. When I am in our local supermarkets or even farm outlets in January, I see the bounty of Chile, China, Spain, Israel, Morocco, Mexico and many other countries with warmer climates or with opposite seasons to our hemisphere.

International collaboration

So, when I go travelling, I make it my business to learn about other cultures, about other ways to farm, different species of plants and how they are grown. For example, I’ve toured central California where garlic products are in abundance and the coastal areas where they grow globe artichokes. In the Fraser Valley, we can grow both garlic and artichokes; however, our climate is not ideal for them, or at least not yet. And the best guesses as to how our climate will change include wetter and hotter weather, and a more extreme climate, so there may not be an expansion in that market. To date, California is under severe drought conditions in several agriculturally important regions. It is not likely that the water will be turned off in the cities, but water restrictions are already being imposed on agriculture, which will lead to land being abandoned due to lack of sufficient water for crops.

What about Hawaii? I frequently visit there and, at times, am a guest of the University of Hawaii’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource. They have programming that is designed to encourage local food production and usage of native food. I was privy to their research trials in both livestock and horticulture production as well as their demonstration trials for public education. This included land based aquaculture. I was impressed with the setup and the service to the community. In addition, I do field calls with the extension service, and was invited to tag along on visits to coffee, coconut palm, and macadamia nut plantations as well as coconut production areas on the coast. There’s actually a BC connection in that coffee from Hawaii used to be decaffeinated in Richmond after customers bought the coffee in Hawaii and transported it back to BC. I helped solve problems on nematodes and a distinct nursery problem in coffee that I knew from my own nursery operation. Being an island state, Hawaii can control the inflow of foreign pest and diseases much better than we can. For example, a banana quarantine for the “bunch top” disease is one such effort.

Hungry for information

What about the Caribbean? None of these small, self-contained island nations have much of a government apparatus to support them; money is scarce and food is hard to come by. Food gets expensive and knowledge of modern growing techniques is not all readily available. I gave several workshops on fertility and pest management on several islands and I was part of a panel in Jamaica, discussing local food production and island agriculture. In particular, we discussed the issue of actually exporting food products into a global market. They came up with a great concept that is both old-fashioned and at the same time forward-thinking: Establish centers of excellence in production amongst local farmers, foster collaboration and make sure food quality is of a high enough grade for export. I have encountered this in Holland with their greenhouse collaborations that include a German region. My advice in Jamaica was to work to keep local governing bodies and industry partners from straying from the task, focusing on programming that is sustainable in the long-term rather than starting projects that sound great but fizzle quickly. This is not just a problem for small nations. It is known to us as well, and it takes a lot of energy to sustain these efforts for the best possible outcome.

In Jamaica in particular, I met so many farmers at the Denbigh Annual Agriculture Show. Some had one cow, ten chickens and a patch of corn, while others had expansive commercial orchards. Some grew onions and others grew peppers and tomatoes. They were all very hungry for information and the local government had exhibits and information booths there; university colleges were present and so was a US government service that is helping establish modern agriculture. The questions I was asked the most were in regard to fertility management on soils with ridiculously high pH. So, I had to go back to square one on the basics of mineral and manure fertilizers and explain the availability of nutrients under high pH conditions. This is just the same as at home when I speak with new growers. I was impressed with the tenacity of the people, despite their lack of resources. You can’t just go and order some water soluble calcium for foliar application and have it brought to you by noon the next day. We are so spoiled when it comes to that. Their wait times can be weeks if not months to have something shipped in by boat from Miami. That also leaves the field open for some more dubious concoctions, some of which I’d love to explore to determine their true utility for our agricultural systems. Others products are clearly nothing but snake oils; usually not helpful, but hopefully not detrimental.

In China, I was privy to the most modern agricultural practices, including organic and sustainable agriculture practices being used to make the food reserved for influential families. I saw the outskirts of company towns where every square millimeter is farmed many times over in a single year as food is both precious and local, being grown with a lot of ingenuity and labour. I saw a chicken production facility that produces two million eggs a day (no I didn’t count them, but it was nonetheless impressive) in a most modern way, separating parts of the eggs into their fractions, selling each product separately or together, utilizing modern technology. A bit later I saw an oxen team plowing a field for growing vegetables, the contrast being something one has to see to fully appreciate. We ate at restaurants with simple food preparation methods as well as high-end restaurants; we visited high end food markets and a market where the poorer people shop. What a difference!

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Self-sufficiency and sustainability

Traveling to the areas described above, I learned how important daily food is for different people and, even more to the point, entire nations. It became clear to me that not one system to production is the best and technology is not always required—as technology is out of range for some of the poorer parts of the world. Food can be produced using sustainable methods, and food can have good quality no matter who produces it. Food is not available year round everywhere on the planet, and a good climate doesn’t necessarily make a good crop. Knowledge is important for producing efficiently, and without support from the rest of society local food production will fade away and imports will be the only way to feed ourselves. We must treasure local production and must support local producers to keep them producing food. We must not demand a strawberry in the middle of January; we can return to eating them when they are in season.

How can we extend the season for our crops, producing food for more of the year as they can in subtropical and tropical climates?

  • Choose the appropriate crops and varieties for our climate
  • Utilize small plastic covers (cloches) or high tunnels
  • Utilize full-fledged greenhouses
  • Specialize in crops that are in demand in the neighborhood, province or country
  • Use transplants instead of seeding where appropriate
  • Modify the climate with the help of:
    • Mulches
    • Floating row covers
    • Raised beds

And before anyone goes out and plants a new crop, start with a marketing plan. Without sales, no matter how good a grower you are, you can’t sustain your effort. But if your business plan works out, maybe, just maybe, we will have added another two months to a growing season or a new crop we previously didn’t grow, displacing imports—sounds worthwhile to me.

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