Lush land features growing potential

Goats are grown on North Caicos.Goats, as well as pigs and chickens, do well on the northern islands, where rain is plentiful.

 

As colonists learned in the late 18th and early 19th century here, farming in the Turks and Caicos Islands can be a difficult proposition. Today, local agricultural production makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s GDP, and much of what gets grown is consumed without ever going to market, highlighting the need for greater production and commercial application to agricultural practices to meet demand.

Only a handful of commercial farmers still operate on the islands today, altogether generating roughly $100,000 in annual sales. But on the other hand, duties on imported food, an expanding demand for organic local produce, and shipping and spoilage costs all combine to create intriguing opportunities in a sector that’s generally considered to be an under-capitalized portion of the TCI economy.

The government sees agriculture as a sector with significance to the nation’s food security, as well as its economic diversity and stability. The duty on agricultural technology and manufacturing equipment is a third of the standard assessment, and even a modest increase in production could produce relatively big returns given the nation’s current food bill.

In 2012, the country imported $62.5 million worth of food. The largest portion of that bill (nearly 30 percent) went for fruits and vegetables. Even if local farmers replaced just 5 percent of that fruit and vegetable spending, local farm revenues would increase by more than 800 percent. The Caribbean Development Bank estimates that local production could reduce imports of key crops by more than half within five years – given the right investments.

Fruits and vegetables grown on the islands include items such as: bananas, coconuts, corn, eggplant, melon, peas, peppers, plantains and tomatoes. Still, most fresh produce is imported, creating opportunities for local growers.

Plus, with affluent consumers around the world generating increased demand for locally grown organic produce, opportunities to fill that void abound. Parrot Cay Resort is a major consumer of organic produce from North Caicos, snapping up everything from eggs to herbs. But, customer demand is so great the resort is now working to diversify the product base, planting coconuts and bananas and testing the potential of aquaponics, a sustainable system that combines hydroponic plant production with aquaculture (the production of marine animals).

“We are encouraging development in this area, as it benefits us and by virtue our guests, who enjoy organic, locally grown products, as well as helps to support the economy of our neighbours on North Caicos,” said Crawford Sherman, the resort’s managing director.

The TCIG Investment Unit reports that local and foreign investors are actively seeking opportunities in this sector, with potential for production of citrus fruits, plus mangos, sapodillas, papayas, pineapples and passion fruit. Vegetable crops – including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons – could be valuable as exports. Herbs and spices are under growing demand, and meat, poultry and dairy production have tremendous markets locally and in the Caribbean.

“I believe (agriculture) is an area where we can broaden the economic base, said Minister of Finance Washington Misick. “It may be necessary to bring in specialized skills and create zones to allow that industry to thrive, but I think if you look at desert climates like Israel (which exports tomatoes to Europe), there’s no reason why we can’t. It’s just a matter of creating the right incentive for people to want to get involved in that industry.”