People have farmed in the Caribbean for thousands of years. Some crops and methods used by Amerindian people in prehistoric times are still part of this tradition. Over the last 500 years, plants and techniques from Africa, Asia and Europe have also become part of Caribbean farming traditions.
Local farming is adapted to the hot climate, spring dry season and threat of hurricanes. Other conditions vary from island to island. Some are tall and wet, with rich volcanic soil. St. Martin is relatively flat and dry. Despite these differences, similar crops and techniques are used throughout the region.
Cassava and sweet potato have been key crops from prehistoric times until today. They can survive drought, provide a lot of food and need little maintenance. Grain can rot in the humid tropics and many crops are destroyed by hurricanes. Root crops can be left underground until they are needed. Other root crops, including arrowroot, yams, taro and tannia are also common in traditional Caribbean farms.
Many historic Caribbean crops came from Africa during the time of slavery. Guinea corn, also called sorghum, was popular because it grows in hot and dry weather. Pigeon peas and yams were also brought from Africa. The pigeon pea is one of several Asian plants grown in Africa before being brought to the West Indies.
Farming methods used in Caribbean gardens come from several sources. In some places, cassava and sweet potato are still grown in mounds as the Amerindians did. Planting in ridges may have origins in both African and European traditions. The short-handled hoe was brought from Africa. Mixing crops is very common in the Caribbean, and may come from both African and Amerindian farmers.
Some common practices may have spread by travel and sharing know-how within the Caribbean. Planting pigeon peas as a border, using sugarcane or thick grass as a windbreak, and planting pumpkins near rocky areas to keep the fruit off the ground are all done on many islands.
Today, most food is imported to St. Martin. But for most of the island’s history, farming was an important part of island life. People depended on the right crops and the right techniques. Their success was based on rich traditions from around the world and hard-won local knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
Do you have a story to share about local farming? What were the most important local crops during your childhood? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].