Agriculture innovator invests in Barbados
Ralph Birkhoff is determined to grow investment in climate smart agriculture and he has chosen Barbados as a focal point of that mission.
The Dutch-Canadian investor is the founder and chief operating officer of Connecticut-based Alquimi Renewables and co-founder of its farming operations group Island Growers Caribbean.
His group has planted its roots here as the first 100 per cent climate smart and Category 5 hurricane-resistant greenhouse system in the Caribbean, and will be producing more than 4 000 pounds per month of organic quality greens for the local market, with a focus on “cold weather crops” including fresh greens, herbs, berry fruits, tomatoes, and peppers.
Working with Barbados partners Armag Farms, Island Growers Caribbean will be growing imported crops only, and will not be competing with local farmers. In addition to helping to reduce food imports, the company plans to hire young people to work on its newly-constructed 5 000 square foot greenhouse farm.
The agri-solutions business, which has received guidance and facilitation from Invest Barbados, has an initial equity capital investment of US$500 000 in the first phase of its operations here, and is committed to investing up to US$3 million by phase three of its initiative.
Having now worked in the Caribbean for more than 20 years, living in the region for ten of them, Birkhoff, discovered that “the fresh produce that’s available in the supermarkets first of all was very expensive and then once you had it it was very poor quality, a lot of the imported stuff”.
He was motivated to look for solutions and realised that protective agriculture “was really the only way to produce large volumes of these imported crops because they are really temperate weather crops, they don’t grow naturally in our climate here, so we have to grow them in a greenhouse”.
Alquimi Renewables and Island Growers Caribbean teamed up with its strategic engineering and manufacturing partner, Sprung Structures Ltd to develop a highly specialised greenhouse system. The greenhouse facility in Barbados is engineer-certified up to 175 miles per hour (mph) sustained wind loads and 202 mph gusts, and is also earthquake, flood, and pestilence-resistant.
The greenhouse employs a customised hydroponic system that delivers the highest potential crop yields while using a fraction of the energy and water required by other hydroponic systems.
Birkhoff said his group was attracted to Barbados for various reasons, including a “terrific local partner” in the Armstrong family-owned Armag Farms, and Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s vision for food security.
“In the case of Barbados we had a very perfect partner opportunity to work with the Armstrong family and to be a part of that farming operation and they just moved very quickly. If our investors want to go and move at a certain pace then we are right there with them,” he noted.
“I was thrilled by the fact that we moved to Barbados because your Prime Minister is very vocal and very focused on food security compared to many of the other leaders, so she understands the issues and the vulnerability of over-dependency on food imports but also to encourage local agriculture in all formats. Not just crop farming but livestock, dairy, poultry and Barbados has always had a long history with agriculture, so we were thrilled when we got the call to start the project,” he added.
Birkhoff said catering to consumer needs was also top of mind for the operation.
“The first phase of our greenhouse is going to produce about 4 200 pounds a month of various crops including lettuces, various leafy greens like arugula and watercress and kale and spinach. We are going to be bringing romaine lettuce, butter head lettuces and Boston lettuces, then also fresh herbs and micro greens,” he shared.
“On the berry side there is a huge opportunity, not just strawberries but we will also be growing raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. But there is a huge opportunity, not just in the fresh berry sector but in the frozen berry sector.”
Birkhoff said there was much scope to do even more, noting that “we should have the choices that we want of better quality, higher nutritious food with a big selection and that’s what we hope to achieve and offer to the market”.
In addition to growing its investment in Barbados, and helping the country achieve food security, Alquimi Renewables and Island Growers Caribbean are also keen to get more youth involved in agriculture.
He said the group had started its recruitment programme and would be hiring a farm manager, and some assistant growers to work on the farm.
“It’s a big part of our social mandate, we really want to try to attract young men and women, especially women, back into agriculture and use our high tech farms as a way to do that,” he explained.
“We all know the issue of the ageing farmer in the Caribbean and it’s creating a negative effect on the agricultural production. So we want to try to attract young people back, we are also talking to the schools in Barbados on partnering with them on hydroponic training and certification. So that’s all part of our overall business model.” (SC)