Soil. Terroir. The science and beauty of why what we grow in specific locations matter. And why the soil integrity is important for growing food. Food that we rely on to be the building blocks of a healthy mind and body.

If you’ve read through our current project’s description, there is a statement about “pre-existing challenges.” Yes, we are here primarily because of the disaster left by one of the strongest Atlantic basin Hurricanes on record – Dorian. It laid waste to the Abaco Islands. But when we talk about “pre-existing challenges”, we are always taking into consideration the state of growing things prior to Dorian. It is all in an effort to have a more complete conversation around available solutions.

The primary aim of this project is to increase food security in the community and self-reliance on a locally grown, locally administered food system. Think about it for a moment – do you know where your lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, kale, or any other of your favorite fruits or vegetables are grown?

In the Abacos or just about anywhere else in the Bahamas, like many Island nations they rely heavily on imports. This is also a multi-layered problem, but one of the issues is plain lack of available soil, and what is around is very nutrient-poor. Which means that conventional growing is also relying heavily on imported bags of soil, mulch and fertilizer.

Yet there is a long and rich history of agriculture here. Settlers began to grow soon after the arrival of the first colonial governor in 1718. Sixty years later with arrival of plantation owners from the American colonies, there was a tremendous demand on the soil to produce. Without using regenerative techniques, the soil, over time continued to break down and become nutrient depleted.

Let me dig into this a bit – what exists in the Bahamas is usually referred to as ‘Black soils & White soils’.

Black soils comprise most of the domesticated land use and have formed the basis for much of the farming activity throughout the islands, despite varying greatly in depth. For example, here in Abaco, on what is known as “Farmer’s Row” you cannot dig more than 1-3” before hitting limestone. On Eleuthera, we were introduced to the concept of “pot-hole” farming. This is where you gather as much soil from your yard as you can and use that in a hole you find in the limestone to plant something in. If we look back, in the 18th and 19th centuries, early farmers would need to clear hundreds and hundreds square acreage of bush by burning to get access to the soil. Burning adds nutrients, yet this method of cultivation is short-term – good for a year or two. In order to maintain the nutrients in the shallow soil, the bush needed to grow back before the process could be repeated, or incorporate other methods of building the soil. Neither was done, this resulted in a good year of growth followed by several bad ones, where little or nothing plentiful would grow, yet demands on the soil would continue, consistently degrading the quality.

White soils are essentially sand dunes. While this type of soil has depth, it is sediment, not rich crop growing soil and so has limited nutrients and minerals needed for cultivating amounts of fruits and vegetables.[i]

So the soil is a pre-existing challenge right?

Now let’s add some additional perspective to what little soil exists. All of the Bahamian islands are essentially limestone. Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) compromises most of the young limestone. When it erodes through natural weathering and acidic rainfall, its mineral elements dissipate, and the resulting soil contains little nutrients. Due to the mix of acid and the existing calcium carbonate, the soil is also high in alkaline – usually in the range 7.5 to 8.5 on the pH scale.  In terms of the fertility of soils, anything over pH 7 is alkaline. High pH makes it hard for plants to absorb water and nutrients.

In comes salinity from the surrounding oceans – continual saltwater flooding from natural disasters, like hurricanes, leech out what little nutrients are in the existing soil and raises the pH even more, increasing the difficulty of successful plant growth. Moreover, high levels of sodium can be toxic.

For these reasons, the native soils of the Bahamas are in fact sterile.[i]

Enter Hydroponics and Aquaponics – the Blue Atlas Project is well on our way to introducing these “soil-independent” growing technologies for adoption by the community.

Blue Atlas is partnering with the Abaco Neem Farm in a large-scale soil amendment project. Simply put, amending soil is introducing any material to improve the soils physical properties; water retention/infiltration, nutrients, permeability, aeration, etc. With better soil, you create a better environment for the roots to absorb nutrients and thrive.

Composting is the natural decomposing of … Fish by-product, bone meal, green grass clippings, paper, cardboard, peanut shells, straw, dead leaves, pine needles, shredded newspapers, wood chips, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste, manure… to name a few. It is accomplished through combining carbon and nitrogen that exist in just about everything around us and can be as small or large as you like.

As we partner with Abaco Neem, it has allowed us to also learn more about the neem plant and its wide array of benefits, not only for personal health- but for plant health as well. The process of extracting neem oil creates residual waste – called neem cake. It contains the same nutrient dense qualities as the oil and it is a natural and locally sourced input that we aim to utilize to assist the compost or act on its own as neem cake tea for the hydroponics, both in an effort to feed and deter disease and pests.

This creates options. Regardless of which growing technique farmers, communities or families choose to adopt; whether it be the ‘soil-independent’ technologies of Hydroponics and Aquaponics; or a more traditional garden using soil, we are hoping to provide a community structure and meeting place where all people will feel free to attend tours, on-going educational opportunities and hands-on training.

Written by Andrew Gober & Kali Kirkendall
[1] Sealed, N., (2010) Soil and Land Resources of The Bahamas (based on Land Resource Study by Little et al, 1977, Volume 27 Summary). [Accessed 18th June 2013]
Derevenski, Joanna S., (2000) Children and Material Culture, Routledge, p.108 discusses slave plantation life in the Bahamas and how on some plantations, like the Whylly Plantation in 1818, when the slaves had nothing to do as there was no planting going on due to the poor soil for growing. Slaves were encouraged to work for themselves and their diet was heavy in conch and fish from the sea as plantings were very sparce.)