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Reflections: The farm at CTI embraced the challenges of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19

ELEUTHERA – Food security and farming became pressing issues in The Bahamas and for the first time, the country faced a food crisis of a magnitude never experienced. The catastrophe caused by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019 and COVID-19 in March 2020 presented extraordinary challenges that the One Eleuthera Foundation readily embraced.

Nearly 14,000 people were displaced by Hurricane Dorian after the Category 5 storm devastated parts of Grand Bahama and the Abacos. Six months later, The Bahamas temporarily closed its borders for three months, reopened in July, and with the new surge of COVID-19 cases, again closed inter-island borders. These actions, which were deemed necessary to save lives, placed tremendous pressure on the economy and the people, and created greater demand for obtaining, food whether purchased or donated.

Approximately 25 percent of this small island nation’s population has been marginalized by the pandemic and Hurricane Dorian. It was reported by Hands for Hunger that more than 100,000 people faced food insecurity because of increased poverty, and that one in 10 people have just $4 a day to spend on food. Unemployment levels exceeded more than 40 percent by July 2020 and unemployment was oftentimes higher on the islands outside of New Providence. Farms, feeding programs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became essential for survival.

The One Eleuthera Foundation (OEF) had developed a Hurricane Dorian Relief (HDR) program that assisted 600 evacuees, mainly from Abaco, who were temporarily resettling on Eleuthera while they rebuilt their homes and lives. The almost $1 million program assisted in housing, schooling, retraining, employment, meals and expansion of their farm.

From its inception in 2009, One Eleuthera had always paved the way towards strengthening communities and planning for the future. It worked with partner organizations to establish small gardens with the Cancer Society of Eleuthera and the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), and both spaces also supported farmers’ markets.

In 2012, it started a holistic five-acre farm at the Centre for Training and Innovation (CTI) in Rock Sound. Known as “the farm at CTI”, it has served the communities in Central and South Eleuthera as a supplier and a marketplace and it became a visitor’s destination. As part of CTI’s training program, students gained experience in solar panel installations, in agriculture and as chefs, preparing healthy meals for the Tea Room restaurant that promoted a farm-to-table experience. When the evacuees arrived in Rock Sound, they, too, had access to healthy meals and farm-grown produce.

“We were always involved in local and national conversations that dealt with food security and health issues,” said Chief Executive Officer Shaun Ingraham.

“In 2012 when we started our Pathway to Wellness series, the experts clarified that 60 percent of all deaths in The Bahamas were a result of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). These NCDs are hypertension, diabetes and cancer, and accounted for half of all deaths of people 45 years and older. That being said, we needed to offer a solution and part of it was growing fruits and vegetables and encouraging backyard farming.”

Healthy foods were accessible when the island’s borders were closed and under the HDR Program, the farm had expanded its infrastructure with new programs as well as employing two experienced Dorian evacuees who had extensive farming experience.

Farmers Michael Lightbourn and Deon Gibson’s livelihoods on Abaco had been jeopardized by Hurricane Dorian and they had welcomed the opportunity to join the team at CTI. Lightbourn is the sustainability officer and agricultural engineer while Gibson is the agricultural manager at the farm at CTI.

A decade ago, Lightbourn installed a 1,200-plant site vertical hydroponic system that allowed Lightbourn Family Farms to provide a variety of mixed greens year-round to the local community. Later, he contributed to the Baker’s Bay and Schooner Bay agriculture programs and joined in on a venture with friends to grow year-round greens and plant fruit tree orchards.

“The farm at CTI was like a canvas – artwork that wasn’t complete. Everything was laid out and it just needed to expand to become more functional. I saw an opportunity to make it a more regenerative farm that would lead to more sustainability.”

Lightbourn said they have completed the installation of a 4,000-plant site hydroponic system and outfitted grow beds with irrigation systems, and that a 7,000-watt solar system was recently powered up for the farm’s needs. According to Lightbourn, they are maximizing the space and growing a large variety of crops using various agriculture techniques in minimal space. They are creating a hybrid of traditional in-ground row cropping and vertical hydroponics that earmarks greater crop diversity and an extended growing season. They have also created four acres of citrus and other tropical fruit trees that surround the one-acre growing area.

In Deon Gibson’s case, he had also left Abaco due to the extensive storm damage caused by Dorian and the lack of safe accommodations where he had resided. He had obtained training in sustainable agriculture while in Cuba and Vermont, USA. He worked at Baker’s Bay, where he contributed to a 100-bird laying flock, a 1.5-acre fruit orchard and a one-acre of row crops. Gibson assists with the beekeeping program at the farm at CTI and is helping to establish poultry farming. He offers his insight on the effects of Hurricane Dorian and the food supply chain.

“Dorian was the worst hurricane we have had. It showed our reliance on imported food, which is such a crippling factor to us. When the food stores weren’t able to open, people looked to the farms to supply them,” said Gibson. “As well, many backyard gardens were started and we were happy to work with those in the communities.”

The farm at CTI uses diversity and regenerative agriculture methods like composting, building and improving soil life and improving biodiversity in the ecosystem. The birds that visit the farm help take care of pest management and only organic pesticide spraying is used when necessary.

Neem is one of the important ingredients used for pesticide management and those trees had originated from the Abaco Neem Farm. The pollination by honeybees helps the flowers produce fruits and seeds and the honey that is pulled from the hives is sold for consumption. The beekeeping operations started with 4 hives and through a grant that the One Eleuthera Foundation was able to secure, they plan to expand the operations to about 20 hives over the next two years. A Global Environment Fund (GEF) grant will assist with a processing facility.

“Part of the concept was to put together different growing methods,” said Gibson. “A regular farm grows dedicated crops while the farm at CTI grows vegetables, fruits and flowers.”

Although the crops are seasonal, the farm at CTI is working towards a yearly production of goat peppers, kale, collard greens, cabbage, beets, string beans, Swiss chard, eggplant, a variety of romaine, salad mix, grape tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, parsley, basil, cilantro, mint, thyme, oregano, dill, radishes, okra, bananas, pomegranate, mulberry, papaya, citrus and sugar cane.

The One Eleuthera Foundation is the government-recognized NGO for the island of Eleuthera for the national Food Security Task Force and they have also participated in various food programs in The Bahamas. One Eleuthera’s partner, SEEP (South Eleuthera Emergency Partners, a nonprofit) recently secured a 1,000-gallon fire truck that will also offer support to local farmers to improve the quality and quantity of food they produce.

Ingraham added, “We are part of the regenerative farming solution and continually seek ways to improve farming for the betterment of our planet.”

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