"It was once easy to grow vegetables on St. Helena. The soils were rich, there were no pests and fine healthy crops could be grown with minimum effort. Sadly, those days are now well behind us. Years of continuous production and massive erosion have left us with poor soils, and as well, an increasing number of pests have made the long and difficult journey to the island. A journey so long and difficult that most of them have left their natural enemies far behind and without this natural control pests flourish here on St. Helena much better than they do in their native countries."
Dr Gillian Key, in her book "St Helena Crop Pests & Diseases," identifies the above as barriers to modern agriculture on St Helena.
But St Helenian Nicholas (Nicky) Stevens – who now owns Polytunnels in the Ex-Airport Development Area near Bilberry Field, Longwood – believes monetary barriers are even greater.
“The island is highly capable of providing fresh produce including things like apples and oranges,” he said. “So there is a potential for things like this – but money is always an issue. The minimum wage here is ridiculous.”
Below, Nicky Stevens (locally known as Nicky Kaiser) talks about his agricultural background, and about his experience of operating a modern agricultural business, Kaiser’s Growers, on St Helena.
“I first started in the agriculture sector many years ago when I left school, as a young farmer. There weren’t many jobs available at the time. I never really took too much interest in it, as back then [as] a young lad your mind was set just to leave the island – but I did love gardening to a certain extent.
But from the time I left school, this was when I first experienced the agriculture industry.
I started in Hydroponics back in 1999 whilst working for Stanley Growers on the Falkland Islands in the landscaping sector. After a couple of years within this sector and developing allergies, I was offered a job in Hydroponics.
My interest in the Hydroponics field at the time was not great, but after a few months it started to grow on me and I started to take a lot more interest, and continued to work within the field up until 2012.
I left the Falkland Island and arrived back on-island in April 2012.”
Establishing Kaisers Growers
“The idea to start Kaisers Growers came up after I returned home in 2015. ANRD told me about a partnership scheme that was available between the business owner, ANRD and ESH.
ANRD described the partnership to me and I thought, ‘okay maybe it’s achievable.’ I told them my plan, and it was received as a good business start-up and had 100% support.
After staring to clear the land in late January 2015, January 2016 was when the Polytunnels were established. All the inner works of the Polytunnels like plumbing and outfitting I implemented and installed myself.
Approximately £30,000 was for the partnership and collectively £22,000 for the Polytunnels from Government. I have no claims to the tunnels, as through the partnership they are the property of Government and the land is leased.
The funding sourced from ESH was for the purchasing of the two main water pumps, the NFT controller and pump system, and also the storage shed.”
Comparing St Helena to the Falklands
“On the Falkland Islands there are two massive greenhouses, one strictly for the production of lettuce (which is a half of an acre in size) and one (of a acre in size), which is a heated greenhouse, produces other products like peppers, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, aubergines etc.
Along with this they have got loads and loads of small tunnels where they grow herbs, leaks and different varieties of other vegetables.
But also there is arable outside farming, which consists of planting potatoes, cabbages etc., which is carried out by planter and harvester machines with minimal assistance from manual labour (as its labour-intensive): So within a week, 14 acres of land could be planted with potatoes utilising just one man. This, compared to producing on St Helena, makes Falklands somewhat more advanced.
But comparing climate conditions on St Helena and the Falklands – production on the Falklands can only take place in the spring and summer seasons, and likely harvesting around autumn. On St Helena, there is chance for you to produce practically all year around, as long as you have water.”
Now you’ve got funding, how do you grow?
I am using a Nutrient Film Technique system that uses less water, with a small amount of electricity – and you can grow just about anything in a Polytunnel, that you can’t really grow or would have trouble growing outside in open soil. This also protects produce from the weather, pests and diseases.
I import seeds for production from the UK. The varieties I use are normally F1 hybrids, which come with special modifications – for example they may be tolerant to heat, resistant to various pests like aphids, and they can last longer. Seeds cannot be harvested from these plants, but F1 hybrid seeds are the best seeds to use in this type of farming.”
Balancing Kaisers with a Full-Time Job
“Alongside of a full-time job, I attend to Kaisers Growers myself and engage one part-time helper with the business (he has never worked within this field, but is very helpful and seems to be enjoying what he does). Hopefully in the future I can expand the business and employ more people.
I sell my products to various vendors like Thorpe’s, Solomon's, Andrews’ takeaway, Bertrand’s Cottage, the Victoria, Queen Mary Store and the Jamestown Market (I deliver prepared goods each Wednesday); but anyone can call me for produce. A lot of people currently call me for produce, and I appreciate and welcome this.
Being in the agriculture field of business is strenuous, but I am one who likes to get in and carry out task promptly. In fact, I structure my workload efficiently to a point that I can work a full-time job, attend my business and still play golf on a Sunday afternoon.”
What are the Biggest Challenges?
“One thing that visitors to the island always pick up on is that there is not enough fresh, local produce on the island.
You can go and blame so many things for this, but at the end of it, I feel that the farmers do not get the full and continuous support to combat this or even try to embark within the agriculture industry.
The biggest and most expensive challenge for me running the business is electricity. Of the two pumps, I only operate one pump 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the reason that I operate an NFT system, which is basically having water running all the time... But the price of electricity is not very helpful to the operation of a business.
There is one pest on the island, out of many, that hardly any producer likes – the greenhouse white fly, which is a total menace and can devastate your crops. If you don’t take the necessary steps to eradicate or control it in the early stages, it can become uncontrollable and crops have to be destroyed.
Controlling pests within a Polytunnel is not always easy and depends on conditions, as some pests thrive better in Polytunnels because it is warm, there’s less wind and there’s more readily available food for them to eat.
I also feel that as there is no youth trainee scheme anymore. The youth today haven’t got much to assistance or encouragement to persuade them into the agriculture industry. It also needs to be dominant in school, as an option for the youth, as you need to try things in order to find out if it’s for you and if it’s enjoyable.”
Nicky’s Top Tips for Starting Your Garden:
• Firstly, take a chance at it.
• You would need a good piece of land that is fertile and suitable for growing your produce.
• If you haven’t got a good piece of land then you could use raised beds (a structure that is made and filled with soil/compost for growing).
• Understand your task – your surroundings, the product your are growing, how to care for the product, the do’s and don’ts and what to do next.
• Ensure you have a stable and good water supply.
• Protect the produce from the various destructive elements like wind and pests.
• Be passionate about what you do and proud of achievements.
St Helena is a unique and wonderful place with lots of opportunity. But this is a challenging era for St Helena – for businesses, for individuals and for overall economic development. SAMS has partnered with ESH to check in with two businesses a month and maintain coverage on these important but underreported stories of challenges and success in the local economy.