St Helena Online

Tag: farming

Rebecca’s First Class (especially for llama farmers)

Rebecca Lawrence is standing by to look after St Helena's llamas
Rebecca Lawrence is standing by to look after St Helena’s llamas

Saint student Rebecca Lawrence has gained a First Class degree in Veterinary Medical Sciences – along with experience looking after llamas.

And she achieved the highest mark in her year group at The University of Nottingham for her dissertation, on the effects of essential oils on flu infections.

She now has another two years’ work ahead of her to qualify as a veterinary surgeon.

Rebecca – who, aptly, hails from Cowpath – spent a year working with livestock on St Helena before going to England to study in 2012.

Rebecca worked with livestock on St Helena
Rebecca worked with livestock on St Helena

Her course included working on several farms with sheep, cattle, pigs and horses.

She also spent three weeks in France studying animal behaviour with llamas.

Joe Hollins, the senior vet on St Helena, said: “Rebecca has done well.

“She worked with us in the veterinary section for a year before going to the UK, and I was impressed by her dedication, intelligence and understanding, with a very quick grasp of the science and practicality of veterinary work.”

But he said she will have to gain wide experience once she graduates, “which can only be gained with the passage of time.”

He said people should not assume she would return to practise on St Helena as soon as she has qualified.

“The role here is that of a generalist, ranging through a plethora of issues such as clinical and surgical work, public health, conservation, pest control, legislation, animal welfare, fisheries, biosecurity, outbreak control… and the list goes on.”

St Helena’s chief secretary, Roy Burke, said: “Rebecca has achieved something truly outstanding in a very demanding subject.”

Rebecca thanked her friends and family in the UK, “especially my sister Laura who has been invaluable during the last three years”, and also Kedell Worboys, St Helena’s representative in London.

Her course is fully funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission – which normally only pays for three-year degree courses.

SEE ALSO: Vet student Rebecca sails to fulfil her dream

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.

How Joe’s chicks flew before they hatched – with the RAF

Picture of Lohmann Brown chickens from the Lohmann UK website
Picture of Lohmann Brown chickens from the Lohmann UK website

Joe the Vet was left pondering the ultimate chicken-or-egg situation after the RMS St Helena stopped sailing to the UK.

In past years, the ship’s passenger list regularly included new breeding stock for St Helena’s poultry farmers.

But with visits to Portland Harbour no longer on the supply ship’s schedule, Joe Hollins had to find another way of getting new parent birds from the breeders in Germany.

And his contacts at Lohmann GB, suppliers of the prized Lohmann Brown chickens, really weren’t sure about the idea he came up with:

Transporting 360 fertilized eggs on two air flights via RAF Brize Norton and then a sea voyage from Ascension Island – without shaking them up too much.

Joe evidently wasn’t too sure about it himself – but the island was running out of chickens and in the end, it had to be worth a try.

The island’s last batch of parent stock were past their prime, he said: “They aren’t laying very much, and the eggs aren’t very fertile either.

“We normally bring down our chickens on the RMS from the UK.

“They are what we call the parent stock, and from those we get the eggs that we incubate and hatch so we can provide pullets to the island.

“The last 50 produced something like 5,000 that we sold on to the island – very efficient chickens.

We are behind with our orders for pullets for the first time in a couple of years. We needed to replace the parent stock. But we no longer had the RMS link.”

Flying in fresh birds was the obvious alternative to the ship – but the RAF doesn’t go in for live chicken runs to the South Atlantic. The birds would have to earn their wings another way. 

“We had to find a solution,” Joe told SAMS Radio 1, “so I asked Lohmann to send us the fertilized eggs.

“They didn’t really want to do it. We were setting ourselves up for failure, and to be honest, I’ve been quite nervous about doing this.”

The gamble paid off, and at the start of June 2013, the agriculture unit at Scotland had become home to 187 newly-hatched chicks – none of them suffering from jet lag.

That represented a better-than-typical 54% hatch rate.

Picture from Loghmann GB website

Fifteen of the chicks are male, ensuring good prospects for future breeding of the Lohmann Brown chickens, which are renowned for their friendliness and adaptability – and their prolific laying.

Their first offspring, due after 18 weeks, are set to be sold on to island small holders at a subsidised price of £1.50 a bird.

Lohmann UK was said to be delighted. And in the entire journey from Germany, there were only six breakages.

LINK: Lohmann UK

SEE ALSO: Roddy brings an end to egg imports (with 525 little helpers)

Handouts keep cattle alive as drought dries up grazing

Grazing has dried up since Neil George photographed cattle near High Peak
Grazing has dried up since Neil George photographed cattle near High Peak

Distressed cattle have used up all their spare body fat as the drought on St Helena has left them without adequate grazing.

Click the pic to see full drought coverage
Click the pic to see full drought coverage

Island vet Joe Hollins has been handing out feed and salt-licks to help the island’s largest livestock herds survive.

He said: “Most of the cattle have depleted their body fat, and in the worst hit areas have eaten into their muscles.

“Although handouts are really a thing of the past, we’ve gone as far as to import fifty 40kg bags of cattle feed and distribute them free of charge among the larger herds – just something to tide them through until the grass grows.”

He acknowledged smaller producers with only two or three animals might ask why they were not also receiving free feed.

But he said: “We have limited funds and can only do so much.

“Our philosophy is that the smaller producers will do their best to get by cutting fodder and supplementing their few beasts, whereas with the large herds this becomes a logistically difficult task.

“The cattle cube (bagged feed) is no substitute for true fibre anyway – it is a concentrate to supplement calorie intake, vitamins, minerals and so on.”

Members of the Deadwood Syndicate of smallholders have been harvesting flax and grinding it down to feed their animals – using machinery salvaged from the days when flax was grown as an export, in the 1960s.

It provides fibre to be broken down in the rumen of cattle – one of a cow’s four stomachs, used to break down food into “cud”.

Joe said: “A healthy rumen requires a good input of fibre to keep the population of digesting organisms thriving and multiplying.

“They in turn provide a good source of readily digested protein as they die naturally in their billions and overflow into the fourth stomach – the true stomach much like ours.”

  • Joe said he was once set an essay at university, describing what would happen to the body of someone stranded on an island with no food, but plenty of water. After converting fat and then protein to carbohydrate, the process was: “Go slightly mad and hallucinogenic, and ultimately die. We’re just trying to keep the cattle somewhere in the middle of that process until nature can pick up where it left off.”

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

Sniff out the coffee grounds… and the bees

The forgotten coffee plantations of St Helena could be brought back to life to build on the island’s reputation for producing one of the best brews in the world.

The draft agriculture blueprint for the island also recommends plotting all of its beehives on a map, to find room for more honey producers.

But the paper reports “little interest in piloting new products such as culinary herbs and mushrooms”, despite expected demand from tourist operators such as Shelco, which has proposed growing its own food for guests.

The Growing Forward paper proposes “a moderate increase in specialist production” for both local and international markets.

St Helena coffee has been acclaimed as one of the finest in the world – and the most expensive – since David Henry began clearing abandoned estates around Sandy Bay in the 1990s. His business collapsed, but an outside company has carried on production, working with Solomon’s on the island.

The paper sees scope for “realistic expansion” of coffee plantations.

A first step must be to identify land suitable for growing coffee, and ways to secure it, as well as finding ways to bring neglected plantations back into use – perhaps with funding or other incentives for a grower.

The paper also calls for a map to be made, showing all the bee hives on the island, so that under-used areas show up.

Short-term incentives could be offered to encourage people to take up apiculuture – with advice on the best plants to introduce for bees.

SEE ALSO: Coffee – how a bag of beans made St Helena a world-beater