THE FUTURE OF MARKET GARDENING IN BELIZE - Sept. 2007 -
The controlling factor in market gardening in Belize has been the limited size of the population. That is rapidly changing and in only six more years the population is expected to double from 300,000 to 600,000 people. The new doubling will be children, that normally do not like vegetables until they are adults. Neither the existing Mestizo, or West African Creole populations like vegetables very much either. The Mestizos are strong on corn tortillas and RK beans, while the Creoles like their rice and RK beans. Most of the market is the growing population of Caucasians, mostly retirees and immigrants. Hotels and Restaurants that cater to tourists are the major markets for vegetables.
The price of gasoline and diesel has become a limiting factor in delivery of vegetables to market. Most fresh market stalls are getting deliveries of vegetables grown by local area milpa style small farmers working with the more primitive method of soil growing, built around the two rainy seasons a year Belize enjoys. More advanced market gardening is being done on large commercial farms, mostly in RK beans and corn using large irrigation spraying equipment from wells or river water.
Transportation costs are severely limiting vegetables being grown in large farming areas, from being delivered around the nation. We do lack a transportation distribution system and it looks like it will be about twenty years before things will change?
Hydroponic greenhouses have been around now successfully for several years. There are a lot of variations on hydroponic vegetable growing systems. Most prominent are the modern NLF system and ebb and flow drip systems. I am using the basic hand fed water sprinkler system and feed bottle by hand, of nutrients twice a day to potted vegetables. It is cost effective for feeding our family on a weekly basis. Vegetables are being delivered by vehicle to the airport and flown to the two major tourist island hotels and restaurants by the commercial sized hydroponic greenhouse operators.
Vegetables can be grown year round, planted weekly under controlled conditions. This has been proven over and over again by individual experimenters for the past forty years. The new experimentation is mostly involved with temperate zone vegetables that tourists like. So far, these can also be grown year round on a weekly basis.
The supply chain of vegetables currently comes from the local nearbu milpa type farmer growing vegetables in soil. This type of growing flows with the seasons and the rains. Shortages in local supply are helped out by importers from Guatemala and Mexico. Hydroponic greenhouses just starting to begin, will eventually even out this supply problem for an import substitution agro industry.
Some vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and potatoes are being grown seasonally, but are insufficient to meet a steady demand. The potato crop has been growing steadily and has nearly equaled or replaced the importation of potatos.
Potatoes, tomatoes and sweet bell peppers are in urgent demand of some experimental work. Our local grown potatoes are one third smaller than imported potatoes. We have produced superior sweet bell peppers than imported locally, but it seems to be an individual farmer success story. Most farmers are growing stunted twisted varieties, indicating lack of knowledge on how to prepare their soil properly. It is a similar story in tomatoes. We lack seed varieties and access to the knowledge, isolated successful tomato growers have learned. Obviously this type of experimentation is the duty of the Central Farm vegetable division. Research is hampered through lack of experience by Agriculture Research staff. They don’t even know enough to ask the right questions and lack the budgets to do any research work properly anyway.
The only use for local import substitution for vegetable growing, is to develop export earning foreign exchange markets, or for agro-processed vegetable products to ship abroad and earn foreign exchange. Leadership is sadly lacking! Theft of crops is also hampering small scale cottage vegetable growing development.
The commercial vegetable future is going to be fenced, vegetable hydroponic style greenhouse growing. What has been done so far, has been successful. What has been learned in the tropics here in Belize, is that a greenhouse needs 6 mil. UV treated plastic on top, to stop torrential rains ruining mechanically watered plants, during rainy seasons and different weights of sun shade cloth. The sides must be open to the air circulation and are usually screened by mosquito netting to keep out birds, animals and human thieves.