The world’s growing population presents increasing challenges for future generations facing a potential crisis to provide sustainable food supplies that’s both nutritional and affordable.
For a small, geographically isolated country like Bermuda, which does not produce enough food to sustain the entire population; food security presents a unique set of challenges.
With limited land as a resource, growing more food on less land coupled with increasing costs means local produce generally costs more than imported goods. And what it costs to put food on the table in Bermuda often raises a frequent debate on profit margins versus greed.
There’s strong arguments on both sides but there’s also a host of global issues directly linked to costs in a country that imports the bulk of its food.
Water rationing in California and dwindling fish supplies in international waters drives costs up. The big push for chemical-free food options in the wake of mounting concerns on the effects of genetically modified food is another key factor.
While local consumers have little control of what pesticides are used on imported produce, or what hormones and drugs are injected into livestock used for meat and dairy products; more people are making a concious effort to read food labels. Local farmers are also committed against the use of genetically modified seeds, feeds and produce.
To mark the launch of our Foodie Page, Bermuda Real sat down with Tom Wadson who has been producing food since 1976, as one of the few Bermudian farmers fast becoming a dying breed.
“We as farmers have taken it upon ourselves not to use genetically modified seeds, and that’s a good thing, as most of the corn seeds available now are genetically modified. It’s all about freshness,” said Mr Wadson, who noted that a simple head of iceberg lettuce in California has to be trucked across America before it’s shipped to Bermuda.
“When it’s picked in California it all goes into a vacuum cooler right in the field – that’s a $600,00 piece of equipment. This was a huge breakthrough in maintaining quality for extended periods. A team of drivers will take several days to get it to the east coast for shipment.
“Then it could be in a food terminal for three or four days before it goes on the boat, and that’s another three or four days. By the time you get it your refrigerator it has every potential to go off. The moment a vegetable is harvested it starts to loose its nutritional value.”
That’s one of the main reasons he decided to set up a hydroponic lettuce growing facility 15 years ago to grow lettuce all year round.
“We’re the only people in this country who grow lettuce in the summer because we have a whole system tricked out to do it – it’s a whole process and it’s all hydroponically grown. We still have some hurricane damage to repair to complete to get through the summer,” he said.
“We took a bad hit, we had a bottle raised lamb that got clipped by a chicken coop in the storm. Chickens are meant to fly, not their coops. When the forecast calls for 40 knot winds and we get 120 knots the game changes quickly. We had to dispatch it right then and there – that was the emotional low of the whole thing.”
Outside of North America Wadson’s Farm is the only place on this side of the Atlantic raising Bermuda hogs with sheep offered up in the form of fresh meats sold at his relatively new market outlet.
“It has been open for about three years and it seems like every day it gets better. We’re perfecting our little thing but I would say hang with us – not only would you not starve to death, you will eat well with a variety of everything. We grow it all in a very complimentary balanced system.
“We have all kinds of things like eggs, chickens, sheep, pigs and fresh vegetables, and I’m the only herder of Bermuda hogs outside of North America. I only keep four sows and a boar – I’ve got 17 feeders right now.”
Restocking days on Mondays and Thursdays were described as “hell on wheels”. “In recent weeks the whole crew picked fresh strawberries in the morning and tied up hundreds of bunches of onions in the afternoon. It never actually stops,” said Mr Wadson.
“The beauty of agriculture today as compared to when I started is – take our strawberries – everything we’re spraying on them is biological. The kicker is that it works better than any of the other nasty stuff did and that’s huge.
“The good thing is pesticides are regulated in Bermuda – almost anally too good! We don’t have half the nasty stuff that’s available abroad, they just don’t allow it and that’s a good thing. Modern diverse agriculture is really coming into it’s own again.”
Now that Health Minister Jeanne Atherden has suspended the importation pesticides containing Glyphosate, due to its cancer causing risks, he’s hopeful the suspension will bring an end to it being sprayed along our roadsides.
“Government has two little yellow trucks with green canvas on the back that sprays Glyphosate along our roads. Invariably it runs off the road, and nine times out of ten it’s running into somebody’s garden, or overboard.
“Run off, in particular road run off is a big problem. There is absolutely no need to drown ourselves in toxic chemicals. Many very simple and safe alternatives abound,” he said.
“Glyphosate ties up heavy metals in the soil, depleting it of available metals and minerals. The quality of food cannot possibly be enhanced by this, and it’s really messing with animal reproduction.
“Studies reveal poorer performance, it’s not going as well as it should because the whole thing is out of whack. And let’s face it, animal reproduction is the whole meat and milk supply – it’s a very complex issue. What is this doing to humans?
“Bermuda cows are eating pretty well, with plenty of sunshine and fresh air you can taste the quality. We use a diet that contains no corn and no soy bean while genetically modified corn and soy are the prevalent ingredients in most animal diets. We used to go with a totally organic feed but invariably the quality was seriously impacted by various mycotoxins. ”
That caused him to switch to another mill – a bigger brand name with a product for egg laying chickens that has no soy or corn in it. It’s simply a cleaner feed. For our meat chickens or broilers, you’ve got to have soy in there to get the protein, so we go with another mill for that,” he added.
Importing special feeds also comes with it’s own set of problems. He imports six containers of feed and supplies annually at roughly $20,000+ each to run Wadson’s Farm. He ran out of clean feed recently which can upset production when it took eight days to clear a container off the docks.
“There’s simply too many hoops to jump through. Do you know why farmers are a dying breed? There are too many hurdles to clear in order to have the correct inputs. I have mumbled the words aggravation station a few times before.”
Referring to the Department of Environmental Protection he said: “Someone had to stamp off on the fertilizer and somebody else had to stamp off something else, I had to buy more feed before I could get my shipment. Red tape is a huge problem and the system in place is just too long winded!”
But he believes stringent regulations to protect Bermuda’s delicate environment are good. “Invariably farmers lead the advancement of agriculture themselves. It is an evolving business and it can be tough for the powers that be to keep up – the farmers are the risk takers.
“It’s all about the price and the bottom line. We’re 65,000 people – do you think anybody gives a hoot about us? Of course they don’t! And we’ve got all the potential for food security issues in the future,” said Mr Wadson.
“It doesn’t look good because fresh food is a scramble in Bermuda. It’s not as bad as it used to be when we used to see all of these boxes of tomatoes coming in here with a big sticker on it that said ‘for export only’. That’s because they flunked all the pesticide residue tests in the US, so they export them to be sold elsewhere; produce that transits the US from elsewhere.”
The cost of operating his buisness coupled with the high cost of health insurance for staff is by far the two biggest contributing food cost factors.
“Everybody’s struggling with costs because it’s expensive to do business here. You’re dealing with one-way containers, the boat comes back full and goes out empty, so you’re really paying for two trips. In Bermuda that’s just the way it is.
“I think everybody’s gotten crazy with it, I’ve got expenses that just go right up like health insurance. And when 7,000 residents left Bermuda that hung me out to dry – they hung everybody out to dry but that’s another story,” he said.
“I used to grow about 100 chickens a week, now it’s closer to 100 a month. Now we usually get three weeks of fresh chicken then it’s another six weeks before you get another three weeks. It’s a pasture raised locally, it’s fresh frozen and it’s all vac packed which is as good as it gets.”
A free range broiler will cost you about $8.00 a pound, but he insists it’s the quality that you pay for. “Our target weight is 3.5 pounds and we cater to mostly private individuals from a cross section of the community.
“It’s clean local food with all the quality advantages of very fresh food. The taste says it all – what we have here is better than free range. When they’re growing chickens in the US the house if 40 ft by 500 ft.
“They jam 26,000 birds in there, they don’t put a lot of light on them because they don’t want them to move too much. Poor ventilation, fecal dust, no natural light is pretty miserable. You can feed organic feed and sell organic food but everything else is missing.”
His chickens are raised in 8ft by 12ft pens with two-thirds of it covered by a roof and kept on grass. They’re moved to a new spot daily to form a “uniform amount of manure to build up the soil”.
Once the egg layers are ready to start laying eggs they’re moved to an open pasture where they range all day. “They scratch through the other manure and are a catalyst for the entire system. The key to this whole deal is the health of your soil – the more manure you put on it the better. So these chickens help me a lot and the climate here makes this is the perfect place to grow them.”
Next year will mark 40 years of hard work in the local farming industry for Tom Wadson who insists he “doesn’t ever want to be the biggest farmer in Bermuda.”
“I’m quite happy to continue delivering produce to wholesale distributors, better restaurants and grocery stores; and I’m very concious about what I pack. I’m not real aggressive on pushing embargoes either – some people hide behind an embargo; I like my stuff to sell on its own merit.”
After a two year term, last month he retired as president of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association after 12 years as a board member. But he’s nowhere near ready to pack it in.
“I could have just been a plain, mundane vegetable farmer but I’m doing different things. It’s very diverse and I don’t sit still, I could perfect something but I’ve got to keep going with it.”
Now he’s contemplating a new composting system he saw at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. The former Rockefeller estate sits on 80 acres of property and promotes sustainable agriculture, local food and community-supported agriculture.
“It’s a very simple concrete structure with a roof over it and they force air through it. An entire pig will compost in this system in four weeks – talk about turn your trash into cash. It just rots down quickly because of the aeration,” said Mr Wadson.
“If I were to retire I would certainly spend some time there, Stone Barns is absolutely beautiful and I have much knowledge to pass on.” Until then he said: “I will keep going until I drop.”
For more information visit wadsonsfarm.com.
By Ceola Wilson