Stephenson, right and cabbage plants in backyard garden
Stephenson, right and cabbage plants in backyard garden

Seven hundred backyard farmers can produce quite a lot of vegetables. But whether that quantity and quality of vegetables will make a dent in the island's level of non-communicable diseases will be left to be seen. But that programme is a start.

Last week, for the first time, the Ministry of Agriculture launched its long-awaited backyard gardening competition as part of an attempt at reducing the island's dependence on foreign foods and thereby improving Dominica's level of food security.

"As a Division, and by extension the Ministry of Agriculture, we need to focus on food security and food security is critical to us. People need to have simple with simple methods of producing food in the backyard, particularly in context of resilience, and in context of where we are now," said Felix Leslie, the Head of the Division of Agriculture's Extension Unit. "We know what has happened to our country. But if we can get up and get involved in the production of food in the backyard that will do a lot of good for us".

The backyard garden competition will engage 700 backyard farmers from ten districts (10 growers per district) around the island for four months beginning in July 2019.

The criteria are that the gardens must be "sustainable, nonprofit driven, meet dietary needs of the community or the family or the home, be innovative and aesthetically pleasing and preferably organic", said Keian Stephenson, the manager of the programme dubbed "Sustainable Gardening, the Way to GrOw".

Although the project is non-commercial, Stephenson said: "you will probably have surplus that you share with your neighbours or you may sell from time to time".

But the programme is not for novice backyard growers.

"The criteria which the officers will look at in working with the gardeners are that the gardens have to be sustainable in that the persons have to be engaged in gardening in the past, and it's something that they have been engaged in and doing over the years," said Stephenson.

He added that the gardens must include a variety of vegetables and may include a few livestock and compost heaps. Judging will be held in August or September, 2019 and the winners will be announced at World Food Day on October 16, 2019 or during Caribbean Wellness Week later in the year.

"Hopefully by October we will be having the final judging where we will select one backyard gardener as a winner from each region and from the top seven we will select one national backyard gardener," said Stephenson to a few dozen backyard farmers who gathered at the Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU) building last week. "We will be visiting you, we will be working along with you and I am hoping that you will give us a healthy, beautiful, sustainable organic garden."

So what is the future of the backyard garden programme?

"At the end of the exercise, you will become a professional, a professional in backyard gardening, a professional in your community," Leslie told the backyard growers. "The intention of the programme is not to keep it with the 70 individuals who we identified but we want to see that programme continue".

Leslie added: "So come the next cycle, we want to identify another 70 backyard gardeners, to work with them. That is important to us because if you have 70 this year, 70 again that will help us in terms of people understanding and using basic facilities, basic things to produce right there in the backyard. And I do not want us to underestimate the kind of impact such a programme can have in the rural economy and the national economy".