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The many challenges facing Bermuda’s agricultural industry

Bermuda has lost an estimated 87 percent of its agricultural land since the turn of the 20th century.

The following article is based on the newly released report entitled The Role of Agriculture in Bermuda’s Future. Researched and prepared by Aran McKittrick, the report seeks to summarise some of the historic and modern challenges facing the agricultural industry, with an aim to better explaining their effect on the use and protection of arable land in Bermuda. It is intended that the report will serve as a basis for discussion between the major stakeholders to educate and advocate for the sustainability of Bermuda’s agricultural industry.***The Role of Agriculture in Bermuda’s FutureAgriculture has played a crucial role in Bermuda’s history forming an essential part of both the Island’s cultural and natural heritage. Despite this broadly recognised role, the agricultural industry and agricultural land have been in a steady state of decline over the last 90 years. There is general consensus amongst many stakeholders that both are in a critical state and are fast becoming obsolete.Bermudians themselves have played an active role in the decline of agriculture, whether as agricultural land owners or as consumers. Over time, Bermudians’ diminishing appreciation for the agricultural sector has caused it to become undervalued and neglected.The result is that Bermuda has lost an estimated 87 percent of its agricultural land since the turn of the 20th century. Of the 735 acres of arable land available for agricultural use, only 360 acres are being actively farmed. Although an estimated 40 percent of the population is involved in backyard farming, there are only 18 full time farmers and 33 part-time farmers in the industry today.The challenges the potential collapse of the agricultural industry and the loss of agricultural land pose to Bermuda are far greater than just the loss of commercial farming, however. There are other significant challenges to which most Bermudians are indifferent, the most important of which is food security.***The Public’s Perception of AgricultureThroughout Bermuda’s history the changing appreciation for the agricultural industry and the shifting perception of the relative value of agricultural land have contributed to the changing status of the industry and continued loss of agricultural land.Bermudians’ diminishing appreciation for the agricultural sector has caused it to become undervalued and neglected over time. During the first decades of settlement interest in agriculture was limited due to the lack of skills and experience of the original settlers. They survived on basic subsistence crops. By the late 1600s early 1700s the shift in the Island’s economy from subsistence food production to the commercial maritime industries of ship building, shipping, whaling and privateering further diminished the settlers’ interest in farming. This trend changed dramatically by the 1800s and the appointment of Governor William Reid to the Island. He introduced new farming techniques and new varieties of fruits and vegetables arrowroot, tomatoes, citrus, including the famous lily bulbs and Bermuda onion. Both of these initiatives reinvigorated interest and enthusiasm for agriculture amongst the resident population.During the “Golden Age of Agriculture”, agriculture production doubled with an estimated 3000 farm workers cultivating 3000 acres of land. By the early 1900s with greater competition from American farmers due to US importation duties, the mechanization of the American agricultural industry and improvements in US domestic transportation links from the South prompted the most recent decline in the agricultural industry and of agricultural land in Bermuda.In response the Bermuda Government created the Trade Development Board to help promote the Island as an exclusive tourist destination. As tourism grew, Bermudians were enticed to give up their agrarian past in the hopes of securing a simpler and more lucrative future. Tourism not only created demand for labour but for land to build hotels, golf courses, lawns and tennis courts. Agricultural land owners were encouraged to sell their property for development including the Munro and Vesey farms which now form part of the Port Royal golf course, the Southlands Farm and Southdown farm as well as Cooper family land which now forms part of the Fairmont Southampton golf course.In the new age of tourism farming was no longer seen as essential to Island’s economic needs. Residents were able to buy rather than grow their own food. This trend continued during World War II with the rapid development of the construction industry to build the United States Navy bases and in more recent times with the shift in economy from tourism to international business which has placed greater pressure on land to be used for development.In effect the changing appreciation for the agriculture industry and value of agricultural land has resulted in a set of ‘conflicting values’ for Bermudians. Although 47 percent of residents believe the agricultural sector is critically important to the Island’s future, evidence from farmers indicates that the general public are largely intolerant of agricultural practices on their own property or in their neighborhoods.There is also a clear lack of appreciation of the inherent link between the preservation of the agricultural industry and the protection of agricultural land as an average of 18 planning applications per year for development on land which has some form of agricultural zoning have been submitted to the Department of Planning over the last 12 years.***Policy and LegislationBetween 1609 and 1968 the development of land in Bermuda was carried out without any formal land use management planning or regulation. It was only under the Development and Planning Act 1965 and the Bermuda Development Plan 1968 were formal land use policies and legislation enacted to protect and conserve agricultural land. Despite the policies and legislation of the Act and the Development Plan the mechanism of subdivisions formalised under the Bermuda Development Plan 1968 resulted in large tracts of agricultural land such as Garthowen Estate in 1963, Jennings Land and Tamarind Vale both in 1952 were subdivided and rezoned for development. Subdivision caused the fragmentation of once significantly sized plots of agricultural land making them impractical for production due to the increased transport and harvesting costs. The result today is that 73 percent of all agricultural land is 0.5 acres or smaller in size. For some farmers this is one of the main reasons for some of these smaller plots remaining unproductive today.***Food SecurityBermuda’s relative isolation, the lack of a local sustainable food source and the resulting dependence on imports has created genuine challenges for the Island throughout its history. As the economy and the values of the population have changed agricultural skills diminished, agricultural land reduced and population increased, Bermuda’s ability to produce enough food locally to feed itself has been lost.With the loss of an estimated 2,100 acres of agricultural land in the last century Bermuda has become more and more dependent upon foreign sources of food to meet its needs. The shortages in global staple food supply due to the Indian rice crisis of 2008, the effects on global commercial transportation routes caused by the Icelandic volcano in April 2010, the effects of global warming and closer to home the dying bee population in Bermuda all have an effect on the Island’s food security.Although with its present population Bermuda will never be able to become completely food secure, the Island can become less dependent on imports and thus become more food secure. To do so we will need to rely on significantly increasing agricultural production and to achieve this more agricultural land needs to be into active production.With a significant number of residents already contributing in some way or other to the total agricultural production of the Island through backyard or community garden initiatives the potential to achieve greater food security already exists. There are greater benefits to such initiatives as they have been proven to encourage the development of flexibility in problem solving abilities of individuals and communities. They also provide an opportunity for individuals to strengthen their capabilities by becoming reengaged in society. A good example of this is Will Allen’s Growing Power Initiative in Milwaukee, the Slow Food and Transition Towns movements which are becoming popular throughout the world.Seventy years after the ‘Cornell Report’, which focused on the state of agriculture industry, Bermuda is still faced with the same challenge, determining the relative importance of agriculture to the Island. We need to decide what role agriculture will play.