Barbados’s Agrofest is much like a rural Canadian fall fair. But at this three-day event, the country’s prime minister attends the first day. The country is working towards self-sufficiency in food production and Mia Amor Mottley, Barbados’s first woman prime minister, is a driving force behind that idea.
Barbados, a Caribbean island 13 degrees north of the equator, was settled by the British in 1627. The early settlers saw the great agricultural potential and established crops consisting of cotton, tobacco, yam, cassava and sugar cane. The island, which is 431 square km, became the starting point for English colonization of the Americas. From the mid-1600s, sugar exports were king and this continued for the next three centuries. Today sugar is no longer king and the island is trying to reduce its dependence on imports by promoting home-grown food.
The Barbados Agricultural Society is over 150 years old. It was established in 1845 by an act of Parliament in Barbados and seeks to represent the interests of the agricultural sector in all relevant forums. It is involved with organizing the annual Agrofest exhibition, a three-day event featuring the entire agricultural industry in Barbados.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is behind this new initiative to reduce agricultural imports and to promote local food and nutrition security. The Farmers’ Empowerment and Enfranchisement Drive is a three-year program to assist in the establishment of agricultural enterprises in a variety of farming systems. It includes training, demonstration facilities and the provision of startup funding for small drip irrigation systems, fertilizer and seed.
Forage nutrition key
Sourcing livestock feed and forages is a big problem in Barbados. Ronnette Bowen, an agricultural officer attached to the animal nutrition unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, is responsible for forage research and development. Currently she is doing a master’s degree in animal nutrition and is evaluating animal nutrition as a viable means of improving animal production primarily in ruminants.
“The grasses and forages that we have here don’t have many of the same nutritional properties of those in temperate climates. Forages on the island are Bermuda-cross, Antigua, African star and Pangola grass and the legume Stylosanthes. Another forage is a tree-like legume called Leucaena. It is widespread on the island but that has some drawbacks in terms of tannins. There are no feedlots here and the cattle are reared either extensively or semi-extensively.”
Bowen is looking at how to use nutrition to lower the import of grains as feedstuffs. She is also studying how to create alternative rations that can be conserved or made into concentrates.
“It’s especially important during the dry season when the grazing is poor and we have been known to have droughts. It’s a lot of nutrition, forage utilization, economics and a lot more politics than I thought it would be.”
Usually grains are imported before the start of the hurricane season and stored, says Bowen. Pinnacle Feeds is the only concentrate feed producers on the island.
“The feeds are made using byproducts from their sister company, Roberts Manufacturing and Barbados Mills, and are nutritionally balanced for the different stages and production by their team of nutritionists,” says Bowen.
The small beef and dairy cattle breeding industry relies on artificial insemination, Bowen says. “This is done by using the cattle artificial insemination unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security. The semen currently imported are Holstein, Jersey, Red and Black Angus.”
Barbados has some of strictest regulations when it comes importing semen and live animals, Bowen adds.
Earning an ag degree means going off-island, Bowen says. Bowen did her first degree in Cuba, but the closest institute is the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.
“I have a degree in veterinary medicine and zootechnics and now I’m doing post-grad in the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and with any luck, I should be finished by the end of the year.”
Retailing beef in the Caribbean
“All our cows are vegetarian… so you don’t need to be one!”
This is the slogan for Clifton Meats, a local Barbadian brand that prides itself on selling premium quality farm-fresh meat from 100 per cent natural ingredients. The farm is situated in the lush St. Thomas hills a few miles from Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.
Bruce Bayley of Clifton Farm says their vision is to produce “high-quality, source-verified meat” from local livestock, which is something Barbados can do.
“We produce and sell in our stores and on the internet, grass-fed purebred Angus beef along with pork, Black Belly lamb and free-range eggs. In addition to meat and grocery products in our store in Bridgetown, we provide a very wide selection of fine wines, rums and specialty imported food items to our many customers.
“We have a Brangus-Angus herd that we have started developing over the past six years and have approximately 200 acres in pastures with access to 500 more for grass silage. All our seedstock was imported from the U.S.A. Initially, we started as a breeding and feedlot operation but over the last two years have transitioned to a cow-calf operation.”
Clifton Farm runs 200 mother cows and sells the calves every year to a network of small farmers. “We then repurchase for processing in our plant on the farm.”
The farm makes grass silage as the grazing period lasts only from August to February. Labour and feed costs are relatively high on the island, so grass silage is their best option. Corn does not do well in their climate but some farmers do access brewers’ grains for fattening.
They also do a lot of pork, and make sausages, bacon and other retail products, more so than beef. The store also imports frozen beef from the U.S. as portion-control options for wholesale and retail customers.
Their new store in Bridgetown, just off one of the beautiful main beaches, is very high-end and caters to the tourists and many rich expatriates who now reside on the island. They advertise and sell extensively on the internet through their web page, Facebook and related social media.
Compared to Canadian prices, food is about twice the price and more in the Barbados and this is reflected in the prices on the store’s website. For instance, local grass-fed stewing beef was C$12.50 a kg and Choice ribeye steak was C$58 a kg plus 17 per cent value-added tax.
Clifton Farm really promotes the store and many grocery products. On special holidays the store will provide recipes and recommend wines to go with the food. In addition, staff prepares special samples of different products for customers to taste.
“The primal cuts from our local Angus grass-fed beef are dry-aged for 25 days under controlled conditions to develop the intense flavours and tenderness. This allows the enzymes naturally present in the meat to break down the muscle tissues. These days, most beef is aged in plastic shrink wrap, a process known as wet-aging. In our operation, we dry-age by exposing our primal meat cuts to the air in our coolers. The meat dehydrates a bit and this further concentrates the meat flavours.”