A Tough Row to Hoe
Farming in the Turks & Caicos Islands
By Jody Rathgeb
Sometimes a cliché is the most concise way to express a truth. This is certainly the case when it comes to farming in the Turks & Caicos Islands: It’s a tough row to hoe!
The saying has always been true for these rocky, mostly dry islands. In 1993, former Minister of Health and Agriculture Nicky Turner wrote in this magazine, “For nearly 200 years the women and men of these islands have wrenched food from the clasp of the inhospitable soil under conditions which would make a lesser people despair.” Turner has now joined the small group of TCI farmers who continue that “wrenching” and hope to bring the Islands into a future of self-sustaining agriculture.
Four operations in particular work on the cusp of commercial agriculture. In addition to Turner’s Island Farms near Kew Town on Providenciales, Courtney Missick continues to grow fruits, vegetables and landscape plants in Kew on North Caicos; at Green Acres Farm in Bottle Creek, North Caicos, Manny Missick employs 10 people on a large spread that was formerly a sisal farm; and Island Fresh Produce represents a full-out commercial operation in hydroponic farming off South Dock Road in Provo.
The focus at each farm is different. Courtney Missick has in the past emphasized landscape farming, then pigs, then an organic chickens and vegetables expansion, but has more recently settled on his chickens, fruits and vegetables. “My calling is to feed and represent,” he says, referring also to his politics-oriented talk show on local television station PTV-8 every Tuesday night and independent candidacy in the December 2016 TCI elections. Although he has been farming since he was young, he says most agriculture in the TCI is still primarily subsistence farming. “What’s keeping me alive is supplying IGA [supermarket on Provo]” with hot peppers, callaloo, okra and fruits. He believes that it is time for the Islands to move to the next level, which is commercial farming.
On the other end of North Caicos, Manny Missick has for eight years concentrated on quality and consistency in organic gardening to supply the Graceway IGA on Provo with okra, bananas, peppers and other fruits and vegetables. The 83-year-old started Green Acres Farm after a full career in the Bahamas and TCI government work, commenting, “This is taking it easy. There’s nothing I love more than planting and seeing what comes up.” His hard work is focused on providing a viable business for his grandsons and expanding the operations with more cleared land, an irrigation pond and expansion into medicinal plants.
At Island Fresh Produce, run by Ian Harrison and his partner, Jan Brown, hydroponic farming presents a different set of challenges. Because the plants are grown in a medium other than soil (fertilized water, with the plants supported by cord when young and granite gravel when older), success depends on water quality and more infrastructure. Looking more like a small factory than a traditional farm, Island Fresh has its own reverse-osmosis plant for converting seawater, tanks that add up to 17 fertilizers in the proper proportions for each type of plant, and screened structure with concrete troughs to hold the plants. Yet Harrison notes that, as in traditional farming, future success depends on dealing with the climate, insects and the costs of a labour-intensive business.
Nicky Turner also has his eye on the future, in a slightly different way. One of the reasons he and his wife, Liz, started Island Farms was to give their sons a life that is connected with the land. “It’s primarily quality of life,” he says. The farm is a second business for him; his primary business, Blue Loos septic services, is still paying the bills for now. Yet the farm is ambitious. With the help of Frankie Adames, a Dominican national who looks after the daily work, and contract labourers, the Turners have added animal husbandry to their operation. They have chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits and ducks, and at the end of 2016 were in the process of building a “proper piggery” with a breeding area and slaughterhouse.
Both Missicks had piggeries in the past, but both have discontinued those operations, because feeding is costly and marketing difficult. Turner shares their woes—he knows he can’t begin to sell his pigs until he can get Department of Agriculture certification—but is optimistic. Yet such problems are only the beginning of the problems that face the TCI farmer. For any farm to be viable as a business, costs must be controlled and there must be enough volume and demand to make a profit. The farmers find that growing plants and animals is difficult but not impossible; what’s needed is better education and government support.
Eggs come from chickens, not cartons
It has been so long that Islanders have been heading to the grocery stores for imported foods, many seem to have forgotten the importance of agriculture in giving a nation self-sufficiency. Manny Missick points out that during World War II, when food imports to the Islands were halted, the farms of North and Middle Caicos were able to feed the nation. Would the same be true today? Dependency on foreign foods has led to consumers who prefer pretty but tasteless tomatoes over fresh, local produce that might not look as attractive.
Courtney Missick comments that some of the health issues that plague the country today can be traced to a reliance on processed foods, and says he believes that as people come to understand the value of organic, local food the status of agriculture will grow. “If you want to live, you have to change your diet,” he warns.
Turner adds that good food—that is, food that is good for you because it doesn’t come from chemically-enhanced fields or factory farms—comes at a price. For example, it takes longer for an organically-raised chicken to reach market size, which is the reason it costs more than one held in inhumane conditions and fattened quickly on a hormone-laced diet. He and Liz, he says, can break even by selling their eggs at Provo supermarkets for $5 a dozen. “At $5.50, we would make a profit,” but only those who understand the difference between a truly fresh egg and a weeks-old one from a Florida farm would pay that price.
Harrison agrees that the economics of farming are little understood. “Any business in horticulture or agriculture is capital-intensive, labour-intensive, and you get hammered on tariffs,” he says. “The cost of getting things going is unbelievable, and the returns are small.”
The farmers agree, too, that education about agriculture should extend to the Islands’ young people, since they are both future consumers and future farmers. In the United States, older people often lament that children are no longer given field trips to farms and dairies, so they don’t know where food comes from. The same is true in the Turks & Caicos. Also, getting young people interested in agriculture as a career starts with knowledge of where food comes from. “It’s hard to sell agriculture to young people,” says Courtney Missick. “How can you learn to play a keyboard if you never even saw one? We need to show them the reality of growing food.” He advocates technical schools and tutorial farms.
Occasionally, even members of government need to be taught those lessons. Turner recalls a moment in the past when he commented that the TCI could run out of food. “[The minister] said, ‘Well, we’d just go buy more at the store.’” As much as the farmers have learned and know about soil enhancement, irrigation, pest control and labour requirements, their knowledge is easily thwarted by policies based on “business as usual,” i.e., importing food. What do they believe government can do to help? Plenty.
Manny Missick looks around his North Caicos farm and sees plenty of private land, prime farming land, lying fallow. He says a smart government would “either tax it or use it.” The government farm in Kew is just a baby step, in his opinion. Speaking prior to the December elections, he commented, “If they don’t get someone involved in farming, they would be the biggest fool ever. We know where the good farmland is and what the water table is. Give a peppercorn lease and get some people involved in serious farming.”
Government investment can help, notes Courtney Missick. “We need new farmers, technical people, specialists,” he says. “In order to move to a commercial scale, you need serious capital investment. You need equipment, and you need whatever it takes to get in foreign labour.” He has tried the private-partner route; in 2014 he began Isaac’s Organic Farms along the Kew-Whitby road as a collaboration with Beaches Resort and a Canadian investor, but the commitments fell off and he pulled back to his original Kew operation. Without government subsidies, he says, farms will fail.
Turner gets even more specific, ticking off a farming “wish list” from the government: “Free work permits. No duty on agricultural imports. A break on electric rates.” These moves, all short of direct subsidies, could truly jump-start the agricultural industry.
And why not consider subsidy? Harrison points out that the food TCI imports comes from countries that have invested in agriculture. “Every other nation gets its agriculture subsidized,” he states.
To be fair, Harrison adds, some in government understand the problems and are doing what they can. He praises Wilhelmina Kissoonsingh, the current director of agriculture, for being “plugged in” and for understanding that agriculture here is no longer “six hens in someone’s backyard.”
Farming on these Islands has never been easy, but with new knowledge and rising interest in the quality of the foods we eat, it has become better. Yet the row to the next level is still a hard one to hoe, dependent on education and a more concerted desire for the success of commercial, self-sustaining agriculture. The farmers want to get to work.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com