The Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources’ Food Substitution initiative received a ‘shot in the arm’ recently as farmers across the Bahamas, beginning in Abaco, Grand Bahama and Ragged Island, received bundles of cassava sticks and sweet potato slips as part of the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute’s (BAMSI) Roots and Tubers Distribution program. The program, which launched earlier this year, is expected to continue until early 2021. To date, almost 6,300 pounds of cassava sticks and 57 bundles of sweet potatoes slips have been delivered to 276 farmers across the nation. Since the initial launch almost five months ago, the cassava and sweet potato plant materials have been delivered to Abaco Island and its cays – Man O War Cay, GuaNa Cay and Green Turtle Cay. They have also been distributed to South Andros, the Berry Islands, Bimini, Cat Island, Eleuthera, Exuma, Inagua, Long Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador.
Stephen Adderley, a member of BAMSI’s Board of Directors and the Institute’s Farm Coordinator, said BAMSI’s program aligns with the Ministry of Agriculture’s food substitution/security initiative which focuses on encouraging more Bahamians to grow roots and tubers as part of the push to enhance this nation’s food security levels. Mr Adderley also noted the plant material being sha red with farmers was grown on BAMSI’s North Andros farm. He said that while there are at least six different varieties of cassava grown in the Bahamas, BAMSI is focusing on two local varieties, the BAH1 and BAH2 which have been grown here for more than 60 years. BAMSI does grow a few Cuban varieties, he said, but more research data has to be gathered before the Institute will consider distributing them to the farming community.
In terms of the program, each farmer receives approximately 300 sticks and is expected to start with at least a tenth of an acre of plants with an expected yield of some 3,000 pounds of cassava in eight to nine months. The program will continue in two ways, with BAMSI distributing the cassava sticks and sweet potato slips on a regular basis over the course of the upcoming months. The program will also move forward as each farmer invests in his/her own community.
As the produce is harvested, it will increase the capacity of the farmer to plant cassava because a medium size tree can produce up to 100 sticks. Farmers will also be able to share plant material with others in their farming community.
Due to the challenges being experience with climate extremes and the COVID 19 pandemic, the Institute is even more aware of the need for the country and its citizens to make changes to become less dependent on imported food. Part of the response must be that in addition to existing commercial farmers, backyard operations also play a significant role in the campaign for food security.“It took the Corona virus to wake the country up regarding food security in the Bahamas,” Mr Adderley said. “Agricultural practices that involve root crops and grains would lend towards greater food security as compared to vegetables because you can readily store these items for weeks and even months with very little advance preparation.”
One of the long-term goals of the cassava project is to tap into the growing interest in backyard farming in the country and support Bahamians who want to start the practice. Sooner or later some may discontinue, but many will continue with the backyard farming when they realise how easy it is to grow [the cassava] and will continue with it over their lifetime. Once you see the rewards it excites you and it can become a hobby. BAMSI’s hope is that backyard farming will catch on in Nassau because it’s already done to a great extent in the Family Islands, particularly those in the southern Bahamas,” Mr Adderley said. Part of the Distribution programme also involves forming relationships with the farmers who participated in the project, with the Institute being able to measure the progress of the recipients for research purposes.
Mr Adderley noted that one of the reasons why the cassava and sweet potato were chosen was because neither requires a significant amount of effort to cultivate. He said cassavas planted during this time will not need irrigation methods to survive and thrive because the rain during this summer season should be enough to produce a good crop, 15 to 20 pounds per tree without irrigation. Also, for farmers with limited space, the sweet potato and cassava root can be planted fairly close to one another – as the sweet potato vines will run along the ground horizontally, while the cassava roots grow vertically, forming trees above ground.
The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) has also brought several varieties of cassava into the country as part of a regional push to strengthen food security for small island developing states and encourage greater interest in backyard farming. One of the reasons these agencies began with the cassava was because it is relatively easy to grow with little work required once the sticks are in the ground. It is also a nutritionally dense food that contains complex carbohydrates, making it a good source of dietary fiber or roughage, vitamin C, thiamin, folic acid, manganese, and potassium. The tuberous root can replace rice and Irish potatoes and can be used to make flour, breads, fries, chips and tapioca. Some cultures also use it to
make an alcoholic beverage and even laundry starch. Alaasis Braynen, BAMSI’s chief executive officer (CEO) said the cassava is such an important plant for Bahamians to begin cultivating because it is easier on the digestive system and adds more nutritional value to the Bahamian diet than other imported and processed foods, such as white rice and white potatoes, that are driving noncommunicable diseases and illnesses.
A nine-month crop, the cassava can be planted at any time of the year, although February through April is the optimum time. For the home gardener, the root requires fairly good depth of soil or a mound of soil to be planted in. And one of the interesting things about the cassava is the planting material is obtained from cuttings from the mature plants. Mr Adderley said the new cuttings will be a clone of the original tree, with a medium size tree yielding about a hundred cuttings which means that the cassava is easy to reproduce as well. Also, the cassava tree can be grown for years, with the roots just getting bigger and bigger while remaining completely edible.