Plant Grow Eat, otherwise known as Marquis River Farms, is committed to helping develop a more health conscious, and self-sufficient Saint Lucia. In addition to cultivating fresh, organic produce, the company also provides assistance to young farmers, helping them to develop their businesses from the ground up. Peter Dillon, one of the company’s Managing Directors, spoke to The STAR Businessweek on emerging trends in the agricultural industry, and what the company has been doing to help generate interest in the sector in an effort to increase local production capacity while cutting down on Saint Lucia’s food import bill.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN ACTIVE IN THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR?
PETER: We have worked this business model for 15 years in small island developing states.
HOW HAS THE INDUSTRY EVOLVED SINCE YOU FIRST FOUNDED ‘PLANT GROW EAT’?
PETER: It has had its ups and downs. We are in the business of import substitution. 95% of Saint Lucian vegetables are imported so there is a lot of space in the market.
DOES YOUR COMPANY, ‘PLANT GROW EAT’ HAVE A SOCIAL MISSION?
PETER: To provide options and choices for rural young people, and create agricultural businesses in those communities. We start them off, make them profitable, pay back the investment capital interest-free, then they become owned by the people who work there.
WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN PRODUCTS?
PETER: Mushrooms, rocket mesclun mix and cherry tomatoes.
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
PETER: Supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and direct individual sales.
HOW HAVE CUSTOMER PREFERENCES CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
PETER: They have grown. Our challenge has been one of scale. We supply quality, quantity, reliability and service.
ARE YOU SEEING A GROWTH IN DEMAND FOR MORE ORGANIC PRODUCE?
PETER: Moderately. Organic is a moving target. The move is towards healthier, chemical-free agriculture, which is not always synonymous with organic.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABILITY LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
PETER: We grow organically from an agricultural perspective. From a business perspective, the business has to be big enough and profitable enough to support a staff that does not rely on one individual financially to weather market forces and climatic challenges.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY RECENT SUCCESSES YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
PETER: Simply Mushrooms. By Christmas there will be no imported mushrooms on-island. We have tripled the demand for mushrooms in 12 months.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU AND YOUR TEAM EXPERIENCE AND HOW DO YOU OVERCOME THEM?
PETER: As an agricultural business our challenges are mostly technical; growing a temperate climate crop in the tropics is always a challenge. However, the willingness, commitment and talent of our young staff is our biggest strength.
SAINT LUCIA’S FOOD IMPORT BILL DOMINATES THE COUNTRY’S TRADE BALANCE. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
PETER: We need to grow more vegetables and focus on the low-hanging fruit of import substitution. We import lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and other things that can easily be grown here.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE STATE OF AGRICULTURE IN SAINT LUCIA?
PETER: Agriculture in Saint Lucia is replete with opportunity. There is a massive market for local produce – it has a cost, freshness and quality advantage over imports. Yet, we are still importing a significant percentage of our vegetables. When you look at the issues, one that comes up frequently is risk mitigation – no return until you get paid. On tomatoes, for example, it takes 13 weeks to grow, 4 to 6 weeks to get paid. That’s a 4 to 5-month time investment where farmers have to feed their family, and if the crop fails they get nothing. Focusing on more regular weekly planting for things like lettuce helps to stem these risks, but it remains a major issue.
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR ‘PLANT GROW EAT’?
PETER: We are looking to export our mushrooms regionally. We also have some agricultural redevelopment plans in Dominica. We are partnering with the OECS to grow 200,000 vegetable seedlings; that will help to restart the Dominican agricultural economy.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE “EASE OF DOING BUSINESS” IN SAINT LUCIA?
PETER: It is relatively easy. Occasionally we get burned by small businesses going bust, and sometimes hotels take too long to pay, but that is not the majority.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON CONSIDERING A CAREER IN AGRICULTURE?
PETER: Go for it! There is huge opportunity in agriculture. Go into the supermarket and look on the shelves and see what is imported. Go home and grow it, but remember the catchphrase of success: ‘Quality, quantity, reliability and service’.
WHERE CAN OUR READERS FIND YOUR PRODUCTS?
PETER: At supermarkets plus we have a stand in front of the Aquatic Centre in Rodney Heights on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, 2.30-5.30 p.m.