St Helena Online

Tag: agriculture

New farming plan will help boost economy and health

A blueprint for transforming food production on St Helena – and making the island less dependent on imported goods – has been approved by executive councillors.

The St Helena National Agricultural Policy for 2014-2020 should also help to tackle the island’s problems with unhealthy diet.

The document sets out plans to increase production and food quality, and give farmers new skills.

Click here to read reports from the draft plan.

Food imports keep rising after years of farming failures

Policy failures have been blamed for St Helena’s growing dependence on imported foods that could be raised in its own fields.

A blueprint for island farming says: “The increasing demand for imported agricultural products is the result of under-investment in St Helena’s domestic agriculture.

The Growing Forward paper also cites “the low priority afforded to the sector in the St Helena Government policy and decision-making process.”

It says the number of people working full time in farming is thought to have shrunk to fewer than 20, with up to 100 running small-holdings or working part-time as producers.

“At the same time the island’s food import bill is steadily increasing,” it says. 

In 2011, St Helena imported fresh vegetables and meat worth nearly £750,000 – about £153,000 more than the value of meat and vegetables sold by island producers.

The paper says the “lacklustre business environment” for farmers is characterised by difficulties raising funds, uncertainty over whether they can stay on their land, lack of insurance, and “a history of unsustainable agricultural programmes.”

It also cites “the erratic nature of St Helena Government policies and interventions, with a consequent dampening effect on confidence and morale.”

The paper calls for a radical overhaul of the industry, bringing in new techniques and equipment, as well as younger workers who are willing to take risks and learn new skills.  

In his introduction to the 42-page paper, councillor Raymond Williams says: “We cannot develop agriculture and manage our productive resources using only the tools of the past.”

The paper identifies inability to change as a high risk to the drive to produce more of the island’s food – including to meet the demands of an emerging tourist industry.

But the 42-page draft National Agriculture Policy says: “We need to be realistic in what we can do .”

It says farming is “not organised commercially and depends heavily on smallholder production which lacks scale, and has low productivity and an inconsistent supply stream.

“Labour shortages, unattractive retailer trading terms and low added value have further led to the under-utilisation of Crown land and private arable holdings lying idle and abandoned.

“In addition, land for livestock pasturage is becoming less productive owing to the encroachment of invasive weeds.”

It says tenants and farming syndicates rely too heavily on the government to maintain land.

It also blames declining farming profits on “the small-holder nature of agriculture, the limited use of innovation, technology and mechanisation, a lack of co-operation amongst producers, and the existence of significant import tariffs”.

The draft agriculture policy sets out a strategy for transforming the industry. 

It includes better training, sharing advice and warnings about disease, better use of technology and new techniques, making it more business-like, and making it more attractive to young people.

Councillor Williams says in the report that he wants a revived industry to “make us a strong and green island”. 

Farming syndicates face loss of land in efficiency drive

Groups of small-scale farmers may be prevented from using government land on St Helena under proposals in the island’s draft agriculture policy, it appears.

It gives farming syndicates some of the blame for poor food production on St Helena.

The draft blueprint says a shortage of good farming land is an issue on the island – along with the way it is used. 

The paper proposes reforms to the tenure system for allocating Crown land, “in order to remove multiple tenant/grazier practices under the current syndicate system”. 

Instead, it says, government fields and pastures should be let directly to individual businesses, rather than groups of growers acting together.

It does not say whether existing syndicates might be forced off land they already use, or whether the reforms would simply prevent them taking on new land.

But in another section, the draft policy says small-holders must be recognised for the part they play in island culture and food production.

The syndicate system enables individual farmers to take on small parcels of land, similar to the allotments provided by local councils in the UK. The difference is that growers get together to negotiate for the land, rather than applying individually for small plots.

The report hints that the system can mean some of the island’s farmland is not put to good use, referring to “varying levels of commitment” to farming on Crown land.

It says the syndicate system causes loss of the benefits of buying and selling on a large scale, and “fragmentation of potentially commercial pasturelands”.

Monitoring could ensure that the limited supply of Crown land is put to the best use – with enforcement systems to make sure of it.

Selling off Crown land has already been ruled out, in order to ensure ground is always available for agriculture on lease for a long or medium term.

Existing tenants would be favoured when a lease came up for renewal, “as long as the land is in productive use”.

The report also blames poor livestock production on “erratic animal breeding programmes with variable standards of husbandry”, and increased cost of imported feeds. 

Strategies have been put forward to breed animals that will sell, and remove “tariff barriers” on feed imports.   

The draft policy paper says: “Whilst it is a national desire to increase production of products in which we hold a competitive advantage, including meats and eggs on the animal production side, the most critical challenges the sector faces is low productivity and profitability.”

Learn to fight pests and diseases, farmers are told

Farmers don’t know enough about how to combat livestock diseases and plant pests on St Helena, according to the draft agriculture policy for the island.

But it also says they are not given advice quickly enough by the government – and there often aren’t enough resources to take action anyway.

To improve livestock farming, the report says, “the island needs to address first the prevalence of animal pests and diseases.”

It calls for more suitable animal housing and a more beneficial environment, and training on how to spot early signs of disease and administer some medicines.

The island’s Animal Diseases Information System needs to be improved, it says.

The Growing Forward paper also highlights “gaps in surveillance and control capacity” and lack of chemicals to protect against specific plant diseases. 

And it says there is “limited appreciation by producers of the purpose and benefits of the adoption of a localised plant protection programme”.

Strategies proposed include training to recognise problems early, and professional pest control and bio-security on the island.

But in 2012, St Helena Government laid off some pest control workers – amid complaints about rat numbers – because it could not afford to keep them on.

Better storage facilities are also proposed – a need already identified by Gillian Scott Moore, the hospitality adviser and keen cook who set up a training restaurant in Jamestown.

Rat claims discounted as pest control staff are laid off
Catering expert Gillian cites need for cold food storage

Agriculture on St Helena needs to go hi-tech, says report

New technology and innovation are needed to meet St Helena’s demand for fresh food, says the Growing Forward paper on farming.

And it could take the back-breaking pain out of food production, it says – making the job more attractive to newcomers.

Incentives could be offered to increase the amount of crops being grown under cover in polytunnels, and through hydroponic methods – without soil, which is very poor on St Helena.

Computers could be used to improve planning and record keeping, which could boost crops and quality.

The paper says growers need to be kept informed about new techniques.

Young hopefuls urged to take a risk on farming

Younger farmers with a dash of flair are needed to make agriculture more dynamic, says the Growing Forward report on ways to boost food production on  St Helena.

And they need to be willing to take risks, it says.

It calls for apprenticeships and placements to allow them to learn alongside the older people who make up the bulk of producers – at the same time as learning progressive techniques.

Strategies include co-ordinating training, and promoting the career through the Traditional Industries Campaign launched in 2012. 

Government staff also need training to provide better support, says the draft agriculture policy document.

“The majority of the current smallholders and full-time producers are older persons, and younger entrants to the sector are critical to providing a more commercially organised and risk-taking outlook,” the paper says.

“There is also a shortage of both general and suitably skilled labour to support larger-scale production.

“A lack of knowledge-sharing amongst producers has resulted in a culture of working in isolation and weakened farmer representation, which limits the competitiveness of the sector through frequent periods of shortages and gluts.”

There have been complaints in 2013 that farmers would have to destroy freshly harvested crops because of over-production, with no scope to sell to markets off the island.

SEE ALSO: Back to the land? School campaign promotes traditional jobs

Papaya may pay as island tries to beat fruit fly pest

Growing fruits such as mango and papaya could be encouraged on St Helena because they can stand up to the fruit flies that plague the island.

The Growing Forward food report says fruit production should not be a priority alongside meat and vegetables, but there would be support for growing bananas and other pest-resistant products where it makes more sense than importing.

“The biggest challenge to establishing other local fruits relate to the prevalence of the fruit fly, which has increased significantly and proven difficult to control.

“Over the next three years fruit production will not be afforded the same priority as proposed for vegetable, meat and specialist production.

However, support will be targeted to larger-scale private sector initiatives, improving the competitive advantage we enjoy for banana production.”

The report also says there could be help for “encouraging seasonal fruits that we know thrive well against the backdrop of fruit fly prevalence.

“These species include avocado, pineapple, papaya and mango.”

Food is the key to island life – and tackling its health crisis

A new body to promote food and healthy eating on St Helena is proposed in the island’s draft agriculture policy – even though it says food is already at the heart of island life.

And it says the new organisation could “make a significant contribution” to tackling hypertension by encouraging healthy eating. The island has one of the world’s highest rates for diabetes, which is strongly linked to poor diet.

The paper says agriculture is seen as having an increasing role in improving health, as well as being important to tourism.

The new body could provide recipes, encourage people to grow their own food, hold tasting sessions, monitor labelling and safety, and even set up an annual food fair, says the Growing Forward paper.

“The refurbishment of the market building will provide a focal point for the showcasing of local agricultural produce,” it says, “and bring growers and producers closer to each other and the community.”

The paper says new policy must take into account the island’s culture.

“Agriculture and food production, while very much viewed and managed as businesses, are also considered by those involved to be part of a way of life and a vocation,” it says.

“Change can be difficult in any case but can be especially challenging in a rural context where flexibility and mobility is constrained by low incomes, lack of other opportunities, lower educational attainment, a higher age profile and limited access to capital.

“The people of St Helena are highly skilled in the art of cooking and entertaining. Social unity and cohesion is food-centred on the island.

“Any agricultural policy that can assist in maintaining and developing this aspect of life is making a useful contribution to the social health and well-being of the islanders.”

Killer diabetes puts island under strain, says the Castle
Cut-price foods that left island with a bulging health problem

After the dry spell, paper warns of climate swings

Sharp changes in St Helena’s climate are having an increasing impact on food crops on the island.

The draft agriculture paper, Growing Forward, warns that swings in the weather could have several effects. They include:

  • lower soil fertility
  • more soil erosion
  • a rise in some pests and diseases
  • decline in wildlife habitat
  • poorer water quality

The threat comes from climate variability, meaning short-term changes in weather such as the recent severe dry spell, which led to a hosepipe ban.

The Growing Forward paper says its impact could be greater than climate change, which refers to changes that take place over decades and centuries.

It calls for research on climate swings and their impact, to allow farmers to adapt their systems for raising crops and livestock, as well as improving soil and conserving water.

But it also says they could allow farmers to try “new production and varieties”.

The paper also says farming on St Helena must have minimal negative impact on the local environment – including its human heritage.

It says that good pasture management has actually enhanced habitat for the island’s critically endangered wirebird, though a report for leisure developer Shelco found breeding ground had been lost through poor land control.

A firm policy to deal with invasive species is part of the environmental strategy put forward.

It also says people who lease Crown land must not let it be degraded and must keep invasive weeds at bay – with effective enforcement measures to make sure they do.

Biosecurity also needs to be stepped up to stop unwanted species and diseases coming to the island, backed up by new laws.

Other proposed measures including tighter controls on hazardous chemicals, maintaining field boundaries, improving the appearance of fields and farmyards, identifying wildlife habitats, protecting historic features in the landscape, and training people in eco-friendly farming practice – which could bring financial benefits to the island.

Old ways pose risk to island food plan

Stuck-in-the-mud growers have been cited as the main threat to plans for St Helena to produce more of its own food.

“Inertia” and delay in changing ways of working are identified as a high risk to the island’s draft Growing Forward strategy – with a high potential impact.

The paper says strong leadership is needed to prevent plans failing through “inability to make the necessary changes in the timeframe”.

It says the challenges are:

  • Changing attitudes – “the hardest thing”
  • Everyone being involved, but with no drive or accountability
  • Constant haggling over detail

“A partnership approach built on trust, openness and a willingness to take difficult decisions is essential for success,” says the paper.

The strategy document also says there are medium to high risks that production and commercial activities will not expand quickly enough, and that frequent climate changes will affect supply and quality.

The paper says producers need to be offered a range of finance options. An annual agriculture forum is also proposed.

It says producers need to plan for variations in the climate.

Five other threats to the strategy have been identified, including loss of political support after an election, declining land quality, lack of people and resources, and resistance to change.

They are rated as medium risks – but most with a high impact on plans for the island to become more self-sufficient.

Strategies to avert those threats including making agriculture a mainstream priority for the government – with the National Agricultural Policy, when it is finalised, being used to push for resources.

LINK: Growing Forward, draft agricultural strategy 2013-15