Published On: Mon, Oct 7th, 2019

Shola the Farmer: from the backyard to a full-blown organic farm

PHILIPSBURG – Farm today or die tomorrow. That was the in-your-face text on a billboard in front of the agricultural ministry in Anguilla several years ago. Agriculture in St. Maarten has always been a bit of a sideshow with a few locals – like Bushman, Joselyn Richardson and Denicio Wyatte – among the few who make serious work of it. Now there is Shola the Farmer, a young woman who went from growing vegetables in her backyard to a full-blown organic farm in Cupecoy, heralding the arrival of a new generation that could make farming palatable to more locals.

Shola – no last name: “I want to be addressed as Shola the Farmer” – started a fish farm at home a couple of years ago. “I came to St. Maarten to start a fish farm. We started inside our house – growing from one tank to two and then to three, until we moved it to the back of the yard. Then Hurricane Irma came and destroyed everything.”

The hurricane guided Shola in a different direction: she had to raise money to rebuild her fish farm. “I started to grow plants and in the beginning I gave them away, free of charge in my area until I realized that I could actually make money with it. So I went ahead with it and I never stopped.”

“After Irma there were no vegetables on the island. We all ate canned food. I thought about what Irma did to us and that we were not self-sufficient. That was part of my reason for growing my own plants.”

Photo TIM VAN DIJK for Sint Maarten NEWS

Shola’s vegetable garden first took shape in the back of her yard. “Nobody knew about it; people were actually laughing at me, like: you studied journalism and you’re a farmer now. Wow, things must be hard. But I had my dream; I knew where I was heading. I knew St. Maarten had space for agriculture. So, I was not waiting for people to come to me. Instead, I went out and said: hey, I have vegetables. People want to eat fresh food but they don’t know who has it. Supermarkets and restaurants welcomed me and said, keep supplying us. I never disappointed them, I just kept going.”

Farming is not rocket science, Shola says. “It is very easy to grow plants. You don’t need a degree. Just put the seeds in the ground and make sure nothing eats them. I have had no training whatsoever; I did not study agriculture. For the fish farm I did training but for planting vegetables I did not.”

The young farmer wants others to follow her example. “I encourage everyone, if you have a problem learning how to grow plants you can come to us on Sundays between 3 and 5 p.m. We will give you training for just $10; you don’t need an appointment, just come in. and if you have follow-up questions later you can always come back and we’ll help you out.”

Photo TIM VAN DIJK Shola walks with customer on the Farm

Shola is of the opinion that St. Maarten has to kick its agricultural activities into higher gear. “We claim to be a country but we cannot provide our own food. I’m not cool with that.”

The backyard activities became too intense in the end. “I started in my yard and then I started marketing my produce. At a certain moment there was no more space in my yard to walk around. Everybody was complaining and I realized that I needed more space.”

That space fell more or less into her lap – a half acre of land in the Cupecoy area. “Somebody knew somebody who was a farmer – not a St. Maartener but a foreigner. He said: take the land and grow until we need the land again. That’s what I am doing. It is a lot of work and I do everything myself.”

The piece of land that is now Shola’s organic farm is located on a slope and it needed a lot of work before the first seeds went into the soil. “We had to dig it out and put some good dirt on it. When it was time to plant we had to remove all the stones to make it work. It was a long process. But if you are willing to learn and pay attention to what you need to do, you can. There is only a handful of farmers on the island. If you have a passion for something you will find the answers to issues that come with that passion.”

Shola has chosen for a pure and natural way of growing her produce. “I grow everything organically. We don’t use any sprays. I grow the plants the way they should grow, the way they would be growing in the wild.”

Taste is a big issue in this concept. “Produce should taste the way people expect it to taste. If you eat chicken and it does not taste like chicken you will taste anything but the chicken. I want the vegetables from my garden to have a strong taste. So be careful when you taste my radish because it will burn your mouth. You don’t need to eat a whole bowl to get the taste. My produce is one hundred percent organic; I use no biological sprays, nothing at all.”

Photo TIM VAN DIJK Stockphoto Shola Farm SXM

The farm offers a wide range of produce – from herbs like thyme and basil to different types of tomatoes and lettuce, but also eggplant, guava, bananas, figs, watermelon, zucchini, cucumbers and radish. The farm is open to the public Mondays to Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3.30 to 5 p.m. On Saturdays the farm is open all day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the Sundays are reserved for training and for this purpose Shola opens her doors from 3 to 5 p.m.

So where does Shola the Farmer want to take her venture in, say, five years time? “I want to create more farms like this. I see this as the beginning, we are just starting. Hopefully the government will give us a permanent location. Without it, there are certain things you cannot do. People say that I am crazy to run a farm in a hurricane belt. If a hurricane comes, everything goes. If the government is really interested in helping agriculture to grow the first thing I expect them to do is support farmers by giving them the space for different kinds of farming. You can do, for instance, indoor farming. In times of a hurricane, the food in that farm is protected. Without government support is will be very difficult to move ahead.”

Shola’s initiative has already inspired others. “A young man contacted me online; he wanted to become a farmer; he has joined me and is doing training right now. In the next five years I hope to get as many people as possible together – everybody who is interested in agriculture to make St. Maarten better. If you are a country and you don’t have your own food it does not look good.”

Watch the video interview with Shola the Farmer online here.

Video and photos by Tim van Dijk


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