Farming on Ambergris Caye.... yes, it can - and is, being done


"Why are vegetables so expensive here?"

That is one of the first questions asked by San Pedro visitors who rent a room equipped with a kitchen. The answer, of course, is that all of our vegetables have to be imported from the mainland and someone has to pay for that round trip for the boat and crew.

The next question the visitors ask is, "Why don't people grow vegetables here on the island? The Mayas must have done so."

To their dismay, many residents here have found that a sandy coral island is probably not where the Garden of Eden existed. Instead of an apple, Adam and Eve would have had to eat a coconut or some fruit that could grow in salty sand or that could be grown hydroponically. There are exceptions to everything, of course.

John Lankford has a vegetable garden that would be the pride of many small time farmers on the mainland. His one and a half-acre plot of black dirt produces tomatoes, peppers, Chinese cabbage, radishes, calaloo (amaranth), beets and cantaloupes. In addition, his many lime trees are an important local source of the small, bitter caye limes that are favored by Belizeans. His produce is sold from a small vegetable stand in front of his home. Lankford's property is north of downtown San Pedro, past the BEL power plant just before entering the San Juan area. He bought the land in 1982, while he was still practicing law in New Orleans, Louisiana in the U.S. On frequent visits before moving here permanently in 1993, he experimented with different types of plants to see which ones would grow best in the environment. In the meantime, his caretaker planted the lime trees which now flourish. John says that according to archaeologists, much of the island was used for farming by the Maya. His parcel of land is the tail end of a much larger section of once cultivated land long since covered by the houses of San Pedro. The rich looking black dirt of his garden is the product of thousands of years of composting by the Mayans.

"Actually, the black dirt might as well have been sand," John says. "The sun and rain leach out the nutrients quickly so it must be turned and composted often."
Leaching is one reason that this is an all natural garden. John does not use poisons because they travel so quickly through the soil that they would be into the water table almost immediately. Instead, he attempts to discourage pests by spraying the plants with Thai peppers in a mixture of water and soap.

"It doesn't work very well," says John."We've pretty much settled on a policy where the bugs get their share and we get ours."
One of his more successful crops has been calaloo, which he planted in response to requests by locals. According to John, this spinach-like plant has been a staple of Mayan diets for thousands of years, in some societies comprising 60% of their diet. Because this important plant was also used in religious ceremonies the Spanish invaders made them quit cultivating it.

"One of our big surprises was how well canteloupes grow here," said John. "I planted some seeds I got from a local restaurant and they turned out to be a hybrid, producing both canteloupes and muskmelons. Our beets, which prefer poor soil, are also doing good."
John is happy to pass on what he has learned about gardening in San Pedro.

"I'd like to see more people doing it. I would prefer to see the island achieve a little bit of home production and self-sufficiency."




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