Welcome back to the Small Countries Outpost, where my business partner Keane and I connect our experiences farming on a small island with the unique issues that disproportionately affect small countries. In previous posts, we’ve touched on some of those environmental, social and economic issues, and discussed how we are using our hydroponic shade-house farm to provide local, sustainable solutions. The political dimension is equally important, but being newcomers to St. Kitts, in this post, we interview one of the island’s most prominent farmers about his experience.
Dr. Leighton Naraine is a professor at Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College who seeks to understand how agriculture in the Caribbean can be more effective. After years participating in the academic discussion on agricultural solutions, Leighton applied his theoretical knowledge by launching a pig farm here in St. Kitts. Pairing thrift with creativity, he uses spent grain from the local brewery combined with local plants and some imported feed to minimize the cost of feeding pigs. He is cultivating an industry that many previously considered cost-prohibitive for the island. We caught up with Leighton to get his take on farming in a small country.
Dr. Leighton Naraine inspecting the produce at Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College
To start, Leighton filled us in on some of the history of farming in the caribbean. “For a long time, developing countries focused their attention on cash crops such as bananas, coffee, and sugar cane.” About 50 years ago, people also became concerned with supporting their own needs for food production. Since then, he said, government-led programs have been strapped with inefficiencies because they create agricultural jobs for the sake of creating jobs without considering the effective application of labor or the feasibility of traditional farming.
“Governments also focus on broad policy initiatives rather than individual farm enterprises,” Leighton explained. With job creation and exports as primary goals, a lot of time and energy goes go into forming proposals, like trying to export more fruits and vegetables, without first establishing the existence of local capability to produce those items. While the government focuses on big export ideas, local farmers need support battling plant diseases, ensuring their farms have access to water or finding the right market to sell their crops – all things the government could meaningfully address, he estimated. Leighton concluded that these missed opportunities cripple the agricultural industry’s chance of success. “We need to make independent farms successful before they can collectively contribute to the industry,” he stressed.
Given his academic background, Leighton knew, theoretically, that a model could be designed for his small island that would offer employment opportunities, provide food for the local community and help supplement diets. He decided that if the government wasn’t going to do it, he would.
Leighton’s journey has not been an easy one. The main difficulty he highlighted during our interview was – and is – working with the local bureaucracy. “The government controls all the access to agricultural land. The approval process is exhausting, and the outcome of an application often depends on who you voted for,” he said. When the government changes, nearly all operations and decisions come to a halt, and the unfortunate farmer is back to square one. It does not help that the government is wary of giving land to people in the first place. To be fair, the government has reason to be concerned. Leighton noted that many people who receive land from the Department of Agriculture for the purpose of farming turn around and squat on it, build homes, and never plant a single crop. Leighton said the consequence is that “the government makes it extremely difficult to acquire land at all.”
Even when the government does approve applications for land use, it is first in small test parcels, and “it is on the farmer to provide all the capital to prove that he can run a business.” Leighton underscored that “farming beyond a subsistence level is a capital-intensive endeavor,” and obtaining cash from outside sources is difficult when a farmer doesn’t own the land or have the full grant. So, if you need land to secure capital, but you need capital to secure the land, how can you overcome this chicken-egg dilemma? During the trial period, the farmer must use personal funds to keep the venture afloat. When the government takes years to approve a long-term lease, securing outside capital becomes nearly impossible. Through perseverance and the early promising success of his model, Leighton was awarded a 50-year, five-acre lease. According to him, “it has been very challenging to try to expand and pay the basic bills” on his own dime.
Why does he stick to it? Simple, “the bigger the challenges, the greater the opportunities,” said Leighton. Farming on St. Kitts and other small countries has remained the same for a long time. As a result, costs for heavily preserved, imported produce have risen while nutrition levels have declined. Fresh ideas, methods and people might be just what are needed to break the trend and start promoting agricultural self-sufficiency. We are inspired by Leighton’s example, and appreciate his insights on traversing bureaucratic tightropes toward transforming the agriculture sector in St. Kitts.