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Lost institute offers glimmer of opportunity

Andros – Hidden down a long, overgrown laneway is a clearing that reveals several buildings obscured by trees and high grass.

Electrical cables are down, snaking along the ground and leading to scattered buildings that have long been abandoned. The structures are largely intact, but in the bathrooms, sinks have been smashed and the walls ripped out as thieves pillaged for copper.

The Bahamas Agricultural Research Center in Andros is a shade of its former self.

Back in the 70s, it was a vibrant campus filled with researchers and experts in agricultural sciences. Sponsored by Pennsylvania State University, doctorate students experimented with growing techniques alongside Bahamians in what used to be an agricultural sector full of promise. And now, decades later, fresh calls are being made for a university in Andros with the intent of promoting a vibrant agricultural industry.

“I sent the minister of education a number of recommendations recently to create higher education for agriculture and fisheries,” said Huntley Christie, the administrator for North Andros and Berry Islands.

“The institute could be linked to The College of The Bahamas, for example, and provide schooling and then jobs. We need to dispel the notion that farming is a dirty word, redefine success and overcome prejudice.”

The research center in Andros, Christie added, would make an ideal campus for the institute.

With much of the existing infrastructure available, and hundreds, even thousands of acres of arable land at their disposal, he envisions a training ground for pioneers that can kick-start a viable new industry in The Bahamas.

Touring the abandoned campus, Guardian Business found several buildings on the site, including what used to be a machine shop for equipment, an administration building and dormitories.

Filmore Russell, a fisheries officer in Andros, is one of the old research center’s proud alumni.

From 1975 to 1976, Russell attended the institute and learned among the U.S. graduate students, taking on various farming techniques through practical instruction.

“That was the foundation for where I am now,” he said. “I went through there to gain knowledge. That site, I believe, would be an ideal site for a new university.”

He added that the “spin off” of founding such a place would be “great”, and lead to other forms of commerce in the largely undeveloped island of Andros.

After learning at the research center for a year, Filmore told Guardian Business he moved to Texas to study at another university as part of an exchange program to delve into seeds and grains. He returned to Andros two years later and was given a job as field supervisor, which involved compiling data on the crops being grown.

Although the research center has long been shut down, briefly turned into a disciplinary school for troubled youth around five years ago, the Andros native said the island has actually come a long way in the agriculture sector.

The number of farmers, at roughly 150, continues to rise gradually.

“The problem I see is marketing,” he explained. “There is a limited market for us here and little outlet to sell our produce. That’s the problem.”

Christie, the island administrator, also pointed out that Bahamians must overcome the stigma against farming through higher education. The discipline must be presented as a skill and subject to be learned – and a viable source of employment and investment.

“Every Bahamian can’t be a doctor or lawyer – we are saturated by these careers,” he said.

“What I want to hear from the government is they’re going to say how many farmers they’re going to have come out here. We need to be systematic.”

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