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Farmers frozen out as BEDC teams up with US firm for vertical-farm industry

Shut out: the BEDC and a US firm will be the sole shareholders of a company being created to develop vertical farming on the island (Photograph supplied)

The island’s farmers appear to have been shut out of a planned vertical-farming industry — one of the Government’s central initiatives to revive the economy.

At a press conference yesterday, Jason Hayward, the Minister of Economy, confirmed that the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation, a government quango, was in the process of going into partnership with Miami-based company Kalera to create an industry here — with no input from local farmers.

Mr Hayward said: “The BEDC will partner with a firm to produce a company that will operate in Bermuda. The shareholders of that company will be both BEDC and the overseas firm.”

The Bermuda Farmers Association had previously accused the Government of forging ahead with vertical-farming plans without consulting local growers.

Responding to that claim, Mr Hayward replied: “On this particular project there hasn't been a heavy level of farmer engagement, but it's not true to say that farmers have not been engaged on the project.

“Why I say that is because farmers would have been one of the first groups the BEDC met with to talk about the development of a co-operative that will do similar activities as the vertical farm.

"There was no update from the local farmers as it pertains to that particular initiative and so BEDC, along with a foreign partner, determined that this was a project that they wanted to involve them and as a result of that we will continue progressing the plans of having a large-scale vertical farm.“

Vertical-farming timeline

Despite repeated assurances of behind-the-scenes progress and imminent announcements on a possible vertical-farming industry in Bermuda, Mr Hayward was once more unable to provide much detail on the development during today’s press conference.

The Government first announced plans for a vertical farm in November 2020, when Wayne Furbert, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said it was in final negotiations with a New Jersey-based company to set up a farm here.

Nothing more was heard of the development until March 4, 2022, when Mr Hayward said: “The vertical-farming facility is being acted upon, with a potential location for a large-scale vertical-farming facility under review and financial details in development.”

On September 28, 2022, Mr Hayward insisted that “significant work has been done” on the initiative and that “we will move full steam ahead with the execution and implementation”.

He added: “That announcement we are weeks away from.”

Three weeks later, on October 19, 2022. David Burt, the Premier, backed up Mr Hayward’s claim.

He said: “On the matter of vertical farming, a deal has been done on that particular issue. It will be coming to the Cabinet shortly. I think it’s on the Cabinet agenda either this week or next week.”

But at yesterday’s press conference, Mr Hayward could only say: “The minister has received a recommendation to go ahead with the formation of a local company in which the shareholders will be BEDC and Kalera. We don’t have exact timing on that but that matter is certainly progressing.”

In the past six weeks, this newspaper has repeatedly asked Mr Hayward for details about what the Government is touting as a central plank in its economic recovery plan.

A spokesman for the ministry said: “While the Ministry of Economy and Labour cannot share specific details at this time, we continue working with stakeholders to launch Bermuda’s first large-scale vertical farm.”

Mr Hayward also dismissed farmers’ claims that a vertical farm was not financially viable. Kalera posted a net loss of $78.7 million in the second quarter of this year.

He said: “I don't think those persons have done a critical analysis of this project to determine that it won't be financially viable.

“Certainly the Government will work with the vertical-farming company … to ensure that the operation is financially viable.

“I believe that the board of the BEDC have done an assessment whether or not this company was a good company to partner with.

“They also got an independent assessment done as pertained to the viability of the project and they provided a recommendation to the minister to say that this is a project that they were willing to support.”

Asked if “the buck stops with the BEDC”, Mr Hayward replied: “Correct.”

The BFA accused the Government of “misleading the public” over the plans.

It also scoffed at claims by Mr Hayward that the project will help to slash the cost of groceries and create jobs, pointing out that micro greens make up less than 0.5 per cent of all food consumed on the island.

A spokesman added that government funds should be ploughed into other fields of food production already established here.

The spokesman said: “An investment in food security would be better placed to fix what exists.

“To hide behind the cloak of food security to defend vertical farming is misleading to the public and does harm to the farmers who need assistance in other ways to future protect the production of more important products — such as the storage of potatoes at the dilapidated marketing centre, which is languishing.

“The proposed vertical-farm facility — that targets only a very small segment of produce — will not be in the best interests of the public. Micro greens and salads represent less than half of 1 per cent of the total food consumed. It is not a staple in the supply chain, such as potatoes, grain or dairy products.

“A large vertical-farming facility will not make food less expensive due to Bermuda’s high operational costs, and any type of growing facility will have to operate as the smaller ones now do.”

Claiming that the Government was working “against” local farmers rather than with them, the spokesman added: “Contrary to the BEDC view that such a facility will not compete with local growers, farmers presently produce the same items of the proposed vertical farm.

“They are expanding their production, and they will be harmed by such a facility. Is the role of the BEDC to harm small businesses?

“More food is wasted now from disease on island. That requires immediate attention. Why invest in the vertical farm when these other areas are suffering?

“The vertical-farming venture as touted by the BEDC fits into their view of a co-op that will solve our problems. This is not the case in practice, and will not benefit the public, as the provision of the public good is best provided for by competition.

“Farmers presently operate co-operatively with the Government to source packing materials, seeds and common supplies, and share cold storage facilities, but act independently.

“They are presently being let down by the Government in this co-operative relationship due to lack of funding of the marketing centre and support for farming in general.”

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Published November 10, 2022 at 10:11 am (Updated November 10, 2022 at 10:11 am)

Farmers frozen out as BEDC teams up with US firm for vertical-farm industry

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