This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the April 1938 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
From a letter of Henry, Earl of Northampton, addressed to the King’s “sacred and royal majestie” comes the following paragraph:
“For the ground: I hold it the richest ground to bear forth fruit (whatsoever one shall lay into it) that is in the world, and very easie and light for digging: so that if a man will labour he will turn up a great quantitie in a day, for it is a fat sandye ground, and of a colour a browne red.”
The fat ground so praised by the earl was this same Bermuda loam of ours which was first tilled by the settlers, under Governor Moore, with their wooden ploughs in 1612. Four years later a skilled planter was sent here by the Bermuda Company to help the colonists in the cultivation of tobacco export. It was the first organised attempt in Bermuda to make a profitable industry out of the soil, and while tobacco growing lasted, it was an important source of income for the settlers and the absentee landlords in London.
In the early years of the Colony the fragrant weed was used together with plaited palmetto, peppercorn and Spanish coins, as local currency. As late as 1670 a Bermuda judge informed his audience that tobacco was the legal tender of the Colony. But tobacco was subject to the wildest fluctuations in price, fetching two shilling and sixpence a pound in 1622, only ninepence in 1629, when a petition to the Privy Council ran in part: ” . . . so it may please your Lordships that you poore peticoners coming late for England with some sall means in Tobacco to relieve themselves and Familyes, the same hath remained four months in the Custom House under an Imposicon of 9d in the pound: and since the detaining thereof the price of Tobacco is fallen a third penny, and will noy yield us 9d the pound cleare, although we pay no duties to his majestie…”. To this petition were appended sixty-eight signatures of harassed colonists. At that time at least two thirds of the population derived their sustenance from the soil. Even wages and rents were paid in tobacco, and were consequently up and down according to the market for the weed.
By 1684, the year the Bermuda Company was deprived of its charter, the sickening tobacco industry was moribund, the price down to threepence the pound, and finally, overwhelmed by competition from the Virgina Colony, where a better quality of tobacco was produced, the Bermuda industry died out.
Bermudians for the greater part turned to the sea for a livelihood, sailing their swift, home-built vessels as carriers, or privateers, into the harbours of the world.
In late years, however, many returned to the land, more and more of which came under tillage. The growth of arrowroot for arrowroot starch took the place of tobacco growing, and in 1843, with 118 acres under cultivation, no less than 1,110,502 pounds of the plant were exported. But again, although Bermuda arrowroot had no equal anywhere in the world, the cost of production here finally made competition with the West Indies impossible. In the islands farther south arrowroot could be produced to supply the demand at a far lower price than in Bermuda.
The cost of labour and production also precludes the commercial growing of other sub-tropical products, as for instance citrous fruits, which are always at their best when grown at their most northerly limits. Also, areas under cultivation in the Colony are comparatively small, restricting the use of labour-saving mechanical implements.
A glance at the graph (Fig.1) will tell you that a Utopian high in Bermuda agriculture was reached during the war years. Talk to Joe or Manuel about the price of potatoes in 1916, and a sad, reminiscent gleam will appear in his brown eyes. Those were the days, he will say wistfully.
Some sixty or more years ago the Bermuda Government brought Portuguese form the Azores to farm the land. They were hard and diligent workmen. Their entire families could be seen at work in the fields, and not only did they improve values but many of them made money. Potatoes reached the unheard-of price of $30 a barrel, according to some reports (today a barrel fetched a little over $5 in New York). In 1918 the export of potatoes made a record of 216,421 barrels. Eleven years later celery exports reached a high of 155,894 crates.
The war years were the golden days for the Bermuda farmer. Ask any old-timer about them, and a gnarled hand that has seen forty years of backbreaking toil will stroke a weather-burned forehead as if calling up visions of a lost bonanza. He probably runs a farm started by his father in the middle of the last century. During 1914-18 the tribe and main roads into Hamilton saw processions of wagons and creaking two-wheeled drays piled high with Bermuda new potatoes, onions and celery. The wharves were packed with produce. But the end came to that when the United States raised the tariff on imported vegetables. Bermuda farmers began to find it more and more difficult to export at a profit, and now Joe’s and Manuel’s grandchildren must look to other occupations, or else try to grow vegetables other than potatoes, such as kale and celery for the newly developed Canadian market, where tariff preference is shown.
Portuguese may now enter the Colony under strict Government surveillance and control, and then may only stay for a limited period. Supposing Joe, Manuel and Pete come here for farm work, they are apt to club together and live as frugally as possible, doing their own cooking, acting as house-wives when not out in the fields, often living in done-over out-houses or barns, where a negligible rent is charged by the landowner or farm owner. Their pay? Well, probably one-half or two-thirds goes back to the little wife in the Azores, as none may bring in either wife or children under recent legislation.
Some save their pay, and on the termination of their contract are able to take a healthy sum back home, multiplied by the advantageous exchange in the Azores. Their contracts are signed by their employers in Bermuda, and allow each man to stay here three years, with an option to extend to four. No man may stay longer than four years, neither may he work with any other employer. Joe or Pete must also deposit £30 with the government, which he will receive back with interest at the end of his stay.
In 1936 a farm survey was ably conducted by the Department of Agriculture. Briefly condensed it runs as follows: A shortage of labour was noticed, leaving farms in a general breakdown condition. Farm labourers recently imported from the Azores had drifted to other easier forms of work. The survey recommended that this migration of labour be restricted. No young men were available to manage farms. Out of 151 farms surveyed with a total of 77- acres, three quarters of the land was farmed on a rental basis. The share system was recommended in preference, with little success owing to the decline of the export market.
The survey indicated that land under tillage broke down in the following proportions:
- Land farmed by white Bermudians: 22.5%
- Land farmed by black Bermudians: 6.0%
- Land farmed by Portuguese born here: 25.5%
- Land farmed by Portuguese imported: 41.5%
- Land farmed by others: 4.5 %
Thus 67% of the 770 acres is farmed by men of Portuguese extraction. Both white and black farmers a larger percentage of the total acreage prior to 1916. The lack of efficient labour and the uncertainty of the export market are both responsible for the depressed state of farming as it is today, reports the survey.
The two bright spots are the Canadian market and the development of the local market. According to obtainable data, 315,000 bushels of green vegetables and potatoes combined are consumed locally per year by a population of 27,890, or approximately 11 1/3 bushels per person. This does not include transient population. The local consumption value is estimated at £231,700, and the export values hover around £50,000.
The graph (Fig.2) shows exports of vegetables and lily bulbs for a twenty year period from 1916 to 1935. The nosedive is caused by the U.S tarrif, increased in 1929. The graph represents a fall of 443,642 bushels of vegetables and cases of bulbs combined, though the later showed a steady average. The export of these bulbs, recently redeveloped, shows an average of about 2500 crates form 1932 to 1936. During these four years statistics show that an average number of seventy lily planters cultivated an average of forty acres.
Tomatoes are profitable at times, 42,000 crates being shipped between June 16th and July 1st, 1936.
The seed for the famous Bermuda potato is imported: 500 barrels arriving from Long Island and 2535 form Nova Scotia in 1936. By law this seed must be used for planting only. The farmer expects to reap, on an average, five or six barrels to every one seed planted. The seed is carefully inspected before shipment for possible disease. Occasionally this develops between the time of its arrival in Bermuda and the date of planting.
Under the Agriculture Act of 190 all shippers must be licensed under bond. This much protects the grower. After that the tale is a sad one.
According to the following figures, there is little hope of an Eldorado awaiting the farmer. Assuming that potatoes fetch twenty-five shillings in New York, which is one shilling over the present market price, and a full barrel weight 180 pounds, the cost to the farmer is as follows:
- On the share-cropping system, one-third to the landowner, or: 33 1/3 %
- Middlemen’s commissions: 10%
- Import tax, 75 cents per 100 pounds, or: 20%
- Freight to New York is the same: 20%
- Fertiliser or top dressing (castor pommace) at seven shillings a bag is used at the rate of one bag to every barrel of seed, or six barrels of reaped potatoes. Therefore cost of fertiliser is 1/2d. per reaped barrel, or: 4 2/3 %
- Labour is estimated at four shillings per reaped barrel: 16%
- Cost of seed is sixteen shillings a barrel, to produce (with luck) 6 barrels at reaping time. Therefore 2/4d. worth of seed to each reaped barrel: 10 2/3 %
This, if you please, indicated a loss to the farmer of 14 2/3 !
Of course, not two years are the same for any farmer. Wind or disease may increase the loss; high prices or a bumper crop might add profit.
It is estimated that seventy or eighty thousand bunches of bananas are grown here each year for local consumption, the Bermuda banana being easily equal to, the product of the large banana-producing countries to the south of us.
Onions are still exported in considerable quantity, but today probably more Bermuda onions are grown outside than inside the Colony. Not only has Texas adopted Bermuda onion but Texans have named one of the chief onion growing districts in the sate-BERMUDA.
Though profit from land under tillage is decidedly precarious, agriculture is by no means down and out in the Colony. Unfortunately, nowhere is the farmer favourably disposed to outside advice or governmental coercion. It always take a little tug to get him started. In Bermuda the Agriculture Department does much excellent work.
What has proved to be a great boon, not only to the farmers but to housewives too, is the Farmers’ Market, organized by the Department of Agriculture with the two-fold view of encouraging the consumption of locally grown vegetables, and to make them available at lower prices. Originally the market was started at Albouoy’s Point in January, 1923, and so immediately successful it was that by the end of February of the same year the present building was leased from the Corporation of Hamilton, and is sublet in sections to the farmers. The latter pay from $15 to $22 a year for their stands, according to the space occupied. The market is open every day except Sundays.
Because it enables the farmer to sell direct to the consumer, both parties benefit through the elimination of the middleman’s profit. To rent space in the Farmers’ Market the grower must be a bona fide farmer operating no other kind of store and owning no other direct outlet for his produce. At the market are sold not only vegetables, but meats and milk and eggs, and even cut flowers.
Operated under the watchful and benevolent eye of the Director of Agriculture, the market has proved an unqualified success. The director, Mr. T. A. Russell, hopes that soon arrangements can be made for a much larger market into which farmers can drive their laden wagons, dispose of their produce and drive out again with the minimum of time, space and labour wasted.
Though a recent agreement between Canada and the United States, which reduced duties in vegetable imports from the latter country, has dealt a blow to our Canadian trade, under the Imperial Preference policy Bermuda produce can go into Canada duty-free if shipped on a Canadian steamship. Farmers look with strong hope to the tourists for increased consumption locally, but view with unease increased wage demands by unskilled farm help. The future for the Bermuda farmer is scarcely promising, yet with the stubbornness and tenacity of the oldest and most important industry in the world, the farmers feel that while there is life there is still some hope.