Occasional Essays
July 28, 2006
Backyard Gardening

Several initiatives can be taken to ensure the survival of the agricultural sector. One such is the expansion of backyard gardening.

As economic development takes place, not only does the percentage contribution of agriculture to a country’s total output fall, but so too does the number of people engaged in agriculture. The developed countries have coped with the reduction of the labour force by mechanisation. As a result, even though there are fewer persons engaging in agriculture, total agricultural production as well as productivity has continued to increase.{{more}}

In St. Vincent efforts at mechanisation have not been very successful. A glaring example of this is the arrowroot industry. The demand for arrowroot is high but we grow only a small fraction of the amount we once did, and a lot of this remains in the ground because there is not sufficient labour to reap it. Over the years efforts have been made to develop a harvester but these have not been very successful.

While we may not have been successful as the developed countries are in getting machinery to replace labour, we still have a big advantage over larger countries. When we talk of labour leaving the land and remaining in St.Vincent our people cannot really go very far since ours is a very small and compact country. It is, therefore, possible for even people who work in the urban area to engage in part-time farming such as backyard gardening.

Moreover, we are a country with many senior citizens. Not only do we have the people who have lived in SVG all their lives and retired here, but also there are many Vincentians who have lived elsewhere and returned home to enjoy their retirement. Backyard gardening should have a special appeal for these senior citizens for two reasons. It affords exercise (almost without noticing) which can help to prolong life. Secondly, the medical profession the world over have been extolling the virtues of fresh fruit and vegetables in ensuring good health, particularly in a diabetes-ridden society such as ours.

Crops that lend themselves to backyard gardening include vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber, egg plant and onions. Fruit including the dwarf golden apple and those that the Taiwanese have done much to develop such as wax apple, pineapple and jujube. Production of a wide variety of herbs is also possible.

The inputs for most of the vegetables are readily available at the Agriculture Input Warehouse (AIW). They provide a wide range of good quality seeds suitable for our climatic conditions. One should always use the best quality seeds. The problem is that these can be expensive given the minimum quantity the AIW is able to sell. This is why I have been urging the AIW and the Ministry to produce seedlings and sell them in Kingstown and elsewhere so that the backyard gardener can obtain plants in the small quantities they need. Similar arguments apply to fruit trees. Fertiliser, pesticides and spray cans are also available from the AIW.

For almost five years now, I have been urging the Ministry to station a Plant Protection Officer at the AIW for one or two days a week so that backyard gardeners can take samples of their diseased plants to him/her and be advised about the treatment needed. No one has so far been sent.

One of the problems is that some of the Ministry’s staff do not believe that this is their job. Backyard gardening is seen as hobby farming and their task is to advise plantation owners and small farmers. They have failed to notice that the planter class has vanished and if we are not careful the small farmers will too. The Ministry of Agriculture has a staff of about 100, which costs Government about $3 million a year. In addition, the banana and arrowroot Associations also have their own staff. In total, however, we cultivate only about 10,000 acres all together in SVG. The Ministry has to be careful that it does not provide the evidence that will allow organisations like the IMF to continue to say the Public Service is grossly overstaffed.

Recently the AIW has been importing some very small mechanical tillers run on a petrol engine, which can take a lot of the hard labour out of back yard gardening. Another technique, which can be helpful in this regard, is the use of raised beds. They are commonly used in lettuce production but can be made in several ways and used for other crops. A big advantage with this technique is that the raised bed can be filled with the soil, sand or clay, best suited to the crop.

Vegetable farming should not be attempted without an adequate supply of water and compost. An easy way to get the water is to attach some guttering to your roof and run the water into one of those black plastic tanks. The Solid Waste Unit stands ready to assist with compost in several ways. They produce it at the Diamond Landfill and sell it there as well as at the AIW. In addition, they advise people how to produce their own compost and in some cases have even supplied bins for the task. The compost should be mixed with animal manure, which is available from poultry and other livestock farmers.

It is hoped that relocating the Produce Division of National Properties to Diamond would facilitate backyard gardeners in selling their surpluses. It is envisaged that the Produce Division would operate with minimum overheads and direct labour so that it is able to pay the backyard gardeners as well as farmers generally, a fair price for their produce. If people are not paid a good price they will limit their production to that required for feeding themselves. Of course they can also sell to the traffickers or not produce at all.

The Horticultural Society is staging a backyard vegetable garden competition in an effort to encourage this type of farming.