Nestled in the hills of Mason Hall, Tobago, about an hour’s drive from Scarborough and a half hour from the Prime Minister’s official residence in Blenheim, along a winding road lined with freshwater streams and where trees form canopies above, is a place where Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley finds his escape.
His sheep farm is where his blood pressure is the lowest and his mental wellbeing is at its healthiest, he says.
From the highest point of the farm, the air is clean and sunset lays a golden blanket over the lush forest that surrounds the property. It’s a 15-minute drive to the nearest village but standing in the centre of the property surrounded by almost 400 sheep, it’s easy to feel far removed from the responsibilities of running a country. Except though, there is the connectivity of a smartphone.
“Let me tell you what it is. I am on medication to control my blood pressure. When I am in Tobago, when I am here, my blood pressure drops to a noticeable low. When I send my doctor what my blood pressure is he says, ‘You see what happens when you stay away from people?’”
Guardian Media was invited on a tour of the farm following an interview that was requested by this media house after the PNM’s crushing defeat at the THA election on December 6.
“It’s really relaxing, it’s satisfying. I am at work when I am here. I have my phone. You could do everything on your phone,” Dr Rowley said.
There’s nothing that he does not do here, he says, from planting grass (feed) for the animals, cutting grass, cleaning the pens, managing the mating process. Each wooden shed has a few dozen sheep. They’re laid out into breeding units, roughly one male to 20 females. It means the rams (males) need to be in their prime to satisfy the females around them, but more importantly to ensure reproduction that keeps the business thriving. When they’re done with the job, they’re fed Guinness and eggs to help them recuperate.
Dr Rowley’s grandfather and father were involved in farming which meant much of his childhood was spent tilling the soil as well. It’s why it was easy to return and remains something he enjoys. On this farm, there are also chickens. Some exotic ones that have disappeared over the years are being bred and sold.
“It keeps you in touch with what you think you are,” he said.
“I don’t know much about mental health, but I know about feelings. I feel quite different. As a matter of fact, I haven’t been on a vacation since I’ve been on this job, but I haven’t missed it.” Three to four days a month, Dr Rowley says, is enough to reset and offer the rejuvenation to continue the job.
“You feel different,” he added. “And the stress of being at the office and being accessible to everybody, there’s some stress that goes with that. Out here, even though I am not disconnected completely, you don’t have that stress.”
Other than the refuge farming offers, there’s money to be made. Agriculture has been made a tax free industry in T&T. That is not without its challenges as many farmers complain about tenure in order to access some of the state’s incentives. But there is hope that more young people capitalise on the opportunities in agriculture and inject greater use of technology.
“What I would say to young people is that the business of food is good business because if it’s one thing, people have to eat every day.”
But it’s what they’re eating. With a food import bill of $4 billion annually, tastes have adjusted to foreign products.
“We need to go back to what we can produce and make that our diet. And then there’s going to be a revolution (in agriculture),” Dr Rowley said.
According to him, much of the goat and sheep meat consumed in T&T comes from large scale producers like Australia. The meat that arrives on these shores is sometimes four years old and therefore providing fresh, high-quality meat can give a competitive advantage.
Getting more and more young people involved in agriculture will remain a challenge, especially, if their upbringing did not expose them to it. But according to the Prime Minister, “good farmers make a good income.” Because the industry is tax-free “whatever you make is yours.”
“The incentives are there. Some people take advantage of it, but not enough,” he added.