Meet Lesley-Ann Bernard, owner of Green Thumb Growers, an agri-business based in Diamond Vale, Diego Martin that is bringing super greens and micro greens to TT. Bernard's produce ranges from kale and swiss chard, to lettuce, arugula and microgreens – which are the shoots of salad vegetables picked just after the first leaves have developed.
Bernard started the business about three years ago as a hobby and now runs it full time. Her journey began with an aquaponics system, which uses waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures to supply the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically. The plants in turn purify the water. She had been doing research into aquaponic systems for a while and decided to try koi as her fish of choice versus the more commonly used tilapia. When she researched the cost factors of rearing tilapia, she realised that she would have out priced herself in the produce market, as the costs were quite high.
For Bernard, this was a retirement plan. Her family owned land in Cumuto that wasn’t really being used, and she decided that agriculture was an option. “I just kind of dabbled in it. Then I started posting pictures of the produce on social media and people started to message me saying they wanted produce that was pesticide-safe and that’s how it was all born.”
Things changed for Bernard in January when she learned of her impending retrenchment from her job at an advertising agency. “I said I’m already doing this, so let’s monetise it and scale it accordingly and jump into it full time.” She’s glad she got the push. “When you look back on it, you may feel that the rug is being pulled out from under you. You ask what are you going to do. The security of a stable income every month is of course a lovely thing. But then when you get too comfortable you find the universe pushes you in a direction that makes you uncomfortable so you can grow.” She admits if her retrenchment hadn’t happened she wouldn’t have been able to invest all of this time into her business and actually expand the way it has. “I’m at a point right now where I can’t meet my orders 100 per cent, so it is just a matter of continuing to grow and grow.”
There are two sides to the business that is Green Thumb Growers. The super greens and leafy greens which have a weekly turnover and then the microgreens, which are grown indoors and take up to seven or eight days to harvest. Bernard supplies her produce mainly by delivery as far as south Trinidad and she also has one retail spot – Bodega in the West Hills Development in Petit Valley, not too far from her base. “The reason I reached out to Bodega is I wanted to see what the uptake would be in a retail outlet. And it was good.” But it is all about managing her deliveries and adding retail outlets bit by bit. “Microgreens is not yet a big thing in Trinidad. You’ll get it at a fancy restaurant at a particular price point but to say someone is actually purchasing a container of microgreens just to eat or have a salad, it is still new.”
That novelty factor was one of the reasons she chose microgreens. “It’s not something that is readily available everywhere, so it gives me a competitive advantage. Also because of the turnover time, it’s quick and easy and it’s indoors. I don’t have to add any fertiliser or nutrients to it. It’s simply water." Bernard was introduced to microgreens and super greens, such as swiss chard, when she lived in Canada. “I didn’t want to do any mass market items. I wanted to do more gourmet type stuff and be unique.”
Bernard also attributes her success on her foray into business before – she ran a media monitoring company – and her career in advertising. “It has certainly helped with the marketing and branding. I think that helps me make the product even more attractive. We are accustomed getting produce in a plastic bag and I try to stay away from that type of single use plastic that’s why I use brown paper bags. I use a stamp and I stamp my bags instead of using stickers. But definitely the branding and understanding of how to target and tap into my audience comes from my skill sets in advertising and media."
Her research skills help as well. “What you find happening with farms in Trinidad is they would have the farming side of the business down but then they have no-one to sell their product to, because they haven’t done the research, or they don’t know how to write a business plan. I’ve been fortunate that I have the business acumen going into this.” And her quest for knowledge is on-going.
“I believe knowledge is key to everything. So even though you may do something and you understand the practicality of it, the actual information is tied together when you do a course and get the academic information.”
Bernard attends free courses hosted monthly by the Ministry of Agriculture which take place at various locations in central and south Trinidad. She again used her research skills and went to the ministry’s website and saw that the information is all there. She also went on to share the information on her social media channels so that others can take advantage of the free courses. After attending a few, Bernard sees agriculture as gaining some sort of popularity as the classes were always well-attended. “There are a lot of women at these courses. And then you have some very young people and you have the retirees. You have traditional farmers and then people who have absolutely no experience who just want to start a home garden. It’s a very interesting mix. The information is definitely out there.”
As for the big wins since her journey began, one definitely has been getting her teenage daughter, Kaitlyn, involved. “(It’s been great) getting my daughter involved and actually seeing her excited and wanting to be a part of it. We’ve done a few health fairs and pop ups and she basically runs the show.”
So what’s next for Green Thumb Growers? It’s all about expanding. Bernard is involved in a project right now with the Cropper Foundation, the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (Namdevco) and the ministry which involves training on pesticides and, ultimately, will result in the testing of produce from various farmers by the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute, so that produce can be certified as pesticide-safe. Massy Stores has agreed to stock the supply in two of its stores. Namdevco will do the packaging and it will be available to the public. “So Trinidad is on the cusp of finally having some sort of certification.”
Bernard is well on her way but what’s her advice for those contemplating getting into agriculture?
“Grow what you like first. Grow what you like to eat and make sure you understand the hours that are needed.”