Imagine this: You are the only human being in a place, and no one else, for thousands of kilometres. Well, this can be a reality if you travel to Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is a remote group of volcanic islands and is known for being the world’s most remote inhabited land. Of course, you won’t be totally alone as a small population does thrive there. Also, not surprisingly, agriculture exists even in the remotest of places.
Tristan da Cunha: A Brief Introduction
If you are in Tristan da Cunha, you’ll be approximately 1,732 miles (2,787 km) off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, 1,514 miles (2,437 km) from Saint Helena and 2,487 miles (4,002 km) off the coast of the Falkland Islands. In other words, nearest land is just not that near.
The territory consists of a few islands, including Tristan da Cunha. It has a diameter of roughly 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) and an area of 98 square kilometres (38 sq mi). Further, it consists of the wildlife reserves of Gough Island and Inaccessible Island. Also, there are the smaller, uninhabited Nightingale Islands.
Talking about population, counts from October 2018 put the numbers on main island at 250 permanent inhabitants. Moreover, all of them carry British Overseas Territories citizenship. The other islands are uninhabited, except for Gough Island, which houses some South African personnel of a weather station.
Tristan da Cunha is a British Overseas Territory with its own constitution. There is no airstrip on the main island. So, the only way you can get in and out of Tristan is by boat, which is a six-day trip from South Africa.
Agriculture in Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha is an archipelago of five islands, with the largest island being Tristan da Cunha itself. It’s also the northernmost among the group, with a central volcanic cone (6,765 feet) and a 34 km coastline.
The main island is quite mountainous with the only flat area being the location of the capital, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, on the northwest coast.
The climate is marine cool-temperate with small temperature differences between summer and winter (11.3 to 14.5 °C or 52.3 to 58.1 °F) and between day and night. Sandy Point on the east coast is reputed to be the warmest and driest place on the island.
Tristan da Cunha’s economy is based on traditional subsistence farming and fishing to provide islanders with their own food.
Thus, all Tristanians are farmers. Potatoes are the principle crop, grown at The Patches, and cattle and sheep are the main livestock, with a numbers controlled to prevent overgrazing.
You’ll mostly find grazing animals (cattle and sheep) on the main island. Why not? They are the most important farming enterprises on the island, and that suggests the importance of grass production. However, the Plain is dotted with boulders. In addition, the soil is thin and very acidic.
The Department of Agriculture is responsible for improving the growing conditions as much as possible. They take steps like applying lime to reduce soil acidity, and applying nitrogen fertilizer after each grazing cycle. The Department also looks after the stock fences and the cattle grids.
Grazing Animals: Cattle
The cattle which you’ll see grazing about in the open belong to individual residing families. Individuals own them, and yet another task of the Department is to police the ownership of cattle according to a quota. The Island Council established the quota, which currently is one adult breeding cow per household. The Department also ensures the proper recording of the youngstock in their proper categories. Just like the common practice around the world, each animal has a number ID on plastic ear-tags for identification.
A mixture of breeds make up the island cattle. Also, there is a limited cattle population on the island, with numbers controlled by the Department.
Grazing Animals: Sheep
You can also observe a mixture of sheep breeds on Tristan, with the sheep reared for both meat and wool. The Department gathers the sheep several times a year for medical treatment (fly and worm treatment) and for shearing.
Shearing Day, generally in December or January, is one of the important days in the annual calendar. People and children gather the sheep into individual owners’ pens and clip them using old-style hand shears.
Furthermore, there is a notable cottage industry on the island for the production of woollen goods, involving all the stages of carding, spinning and knitting.
You’ll find mutton on the Tristan menu throughout the year. This is particularly because all households have a deep-freeze, and the traditional Christmas dinner on the island is stuffed roast mutton. Additionally, an unknown number of sheep roam unattended on the mountain, where they can sometimes be available for meat.
Agriculture: Potatoes of Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha is well-known for its production of potatoes, which also forms an important part of the staple diet of the people. As a matter of fact, in most years, the people on the island send potatoes to their counterparts on the island of St. Helena, and surplus potatoes go into cattle feed.
Most of the potatoes are grown at the Patches (small plots that are surrounded by walls to protect the crop from the wind). Although sometimes, garden plots within the Settlement are used for potatoes, and plots at the Patches are used for vegetable crops.
It might come as a surprise to commercial potato growers around the world that potatoes are grown at the Patches year after year on the same plot, with no rotation. The reason for this is unknown. Probably, the particular conditions on Tristan make this possible, without massive pest and disease build-up.
Agriculture: Fruits and Vegetables
Now-a-days, there is an increasing importance on the growing of fruit and vegetables. Not only is the principle of self sufficiency important, but also for such a remote island the strategic importance of growing produce locally is becoming increasingly clear due to the problems with imported supplies.
You’ll see tree fruits like apples, pears, peaches and nectarines, and strawberries. They are new to the island and their growing has had a degree of success. The Department of Agriculture operates two small greenhouses which are capable of producing salad crops around the year. Moreover, many islanders now produce vegetables in small gardens near their houses, surrounded by New Zealand Flax for wind protection.
Coops for chickens and ducks surround the Settlement. They help maintain a steady supply of eggs to the households, and are very useful for recycling kitchen waste. As of data from 2019, there are around 700 chickens and ducks. In the past, geese were also kept, but there are none on the island today.
Within the Department of Agriculture is the sub-division of Veterinary Services. It is responsible for carrying out routine treatment to the cattle and sheep and to help with lambing and calving. In addition, it also carries out flea and worm control on the many dogs. The Veterinary sub-division is also responsible for looking after animal import regulation and documentation.
The island usually hosts visiting vets, as there are too few animals on Tristan to properly justify the need of a full-time qualified veterinary presence.
All in all, this remote place in the Southern Atlantic is almost self-sufficient. However, it is true that the island needs a timely supply of goods, which it gets through imports by sea.