Oct. 26, 2008 -- Full-time farmers in the Virgin Islands face many challenges, but members of the territory's three major farmers' organizations are 100-percent committed to restoring the local agriculture industry through a variety of initiatives, ranging from the development of agro-tourism to the building of permanent farmers' markets on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
There is a general consensus among the groups that agriculture has been put on the back burner since the mid-1960s, when the last of the territory's sugar-cane factories closed down on St. Croix, and industrial giants such as Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp. (the predecessor to Hovensa) and Harvey Aluminum were brought in, completing the island's switch from an agrarian to a tourism-based economy. Since then, there has been talk of reviving agriculture, but no real moves have been made to get the industry back to its former glory, said Dale Brown, president of the St. Croix-based V.I. Farmers Cooperative.
In hopes of seeing agriculture grow once again, the farmers' organizations have been taking matters into their own hands by developing some serious plans for the future of crop and livestock production the territory. Their efforts have taken root in the local schools, with agricultural workshops and vocational courses, and have blossomed into blueprints for full-scale farmers' complexes, composting sites, food-processing plants and petting zoos.
"There are over 300 careers in agriculture," Brown said. "Within that industry you can develop just about any business you want. There are so many benefits -- especially now with all the new technology and special services -- that the agricultural industry can provide that have never been looked at. Once we are able to realize that and take agriculture more seriously, then we can put behind us the 42 years that we have suffered without it, and look ahead at the resurgence of the industry, and bridge the gap for true economic development in the territory."
There are few full-time farmers in the territory. In fact, most of the members in each organization hold down other jobs during the week, leaving little time for planting, harvesting and preparing the land for a new set of crops, according to Percival Edwards, president of St. Croix Farmers in Action.
"What most farmers complain about is the labor force -- there are no employees available to help clear and cultivate the land or assist the farmers in other ways," he said. "Having five employees for three of four months would accomplish a lot more than we're able to do right now. We need the manpower, and that would also assist in creating more jobs and employment opportunities for people on St. Croix."
Most of the organization's 25 members are part-time farmers, Edwards said. Initiatives such as crop or farm rotation suffer from a lack of up-to-date statistics on what kind of crops the farmers are producing, and in what quantities, he said. Not knowing how much of each crop is produced also makes it difficult for farmers to distribute or sell produce on a consistent basis, Edwards said.
"We need legislation -- the putting together of logistics, guidelines and policies -- to be put in place and the creation of a marketing program that would allow us to work in conjunction with people at the university and the Department of Agriculture to help with the recordkeeping," he said. "Then we can finally keep up to date with all the statistics."
The lack of local funding made available to farmers has always been a setback, according to Brown, who said few banks provide the capital needed to develop "agriculturally oriented enterprises."
Of course, there are always natural impediments to the farming process, said Derrick Hodge, president of St. Thomas-based We Grow Food Inc., a collective of farmers from the Bordeaux area. Bugs and other pests that attach themselves to the crops have to be dealt with in their early stages -- otherwise, they can prevent fruit from fully forming, or actually destroy an entire crop, he explained. St. Thomas' hilly terrain also forces farmers to terrace their crops, a process that could go on for weeks if the hillside is rocky and large chunks of land have to be excavated, Hodge said.
"Sometimes in that process, you also lose a lot of earth and have to bring in more topsoil, which costs extra money," he said. "The hilly terrain is part of the reason most farmers choose to grow fruit trees -- if there's a storm or something like that and the rain washes down the hill, fruit trees can withstand that and love the water. Smaller plants, your thymes and other herbs, can't. But then, once the fruit falls, you also have the problem of it rolling down the hill."
The recent wind and rain brought on by Hurricane Omar hit the islands hard, particularly St. Croix, destroying fruit and mahogany trees throughout St. Thomas and St. Croix, said Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen. While the amount of damage caused by the storm will not be fully assessed for the next couple of weeks, it is evident that local crop producers have been greatly impacted, he said.
"It's definitely a lot of loss for crop farmers," Petersen said. "We also have a lot of damage to our infrastructure, especially when it comes to things like access roads where there have been landslides or other blockages. Our staff is out there working on assessing the damage -- it's taking a little while, but in the meantime we urge the farmers to contact Agriculture offices on all three islands so we can come out, collect the data and help them assess the damage."
Farmers can contact Agriculture for on-site assistance at 776-6274 on St. John, 774-5182 on St. Thomas and 778-0997 or 778-0998 on St. Croix.
Future Plans and Government Support
Founded in 2005, the V.I. Farmers Cooperative has expanded in a short period of time from seven founders to more than 73 members. The organization's main goal is to revive the agriculture industry and begin pooling farmers' produce in hopes of getting a more consistent supply of locally grown food, according to Brown.
In 2006, the cooperative received a $172,000 small-minority-producer grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to look at ways of producing the "most profitable mix" of agricultural products on the island, he said.
"The grant went toward a the development of a feasibility study for three parcels of land on St. Croix -- the Windsor Farm, the La Reine A Field and 60 acres in Estate Grange," Brown said. "Once there was enough data for us to go on, we had to work on the development of a marketing and business plan that would tell us how we could bring these properties online. The Windsor Farm would be geared toward agro- and eco-tourism, while the La Reine A Field would deal with hay production and composting, which would help us develop livestock production and locally produced fertilizers. The final stage, the Estate Grange farm, would be geared toward vegetable production, along with the construction of a permanent farmers' market and greenhouse."
The farmstand would be enclosed but accessible to the public. It would also stay open seven days a week, giving farmers and community members a steady headquarters for the buying and selling of local produce. The cooperative hopes to have the farm online and the farmers in production by the end of December, Brown said. Work on the hayfield is going to start simultaneously, and the organization will work with the University of the Virgin Islands' Agriculture Experiment Station to do some test plots and determine what areas are best for livestock production.
The creation of an "agricultural/food" policy for the territory is also in the works, and would touch on such issues as increasing crop and livestock production, making resources available for seniors and low-income residents to be able to purchase local food, and promoting the education of agriculture in local schools, Brown said.
Developing a new agri-heritage industry is also a focus for Edwards and the St. Croix Farmers in Action, which has been up and running for the past decade. Work has gone on the past eight years to restore the Estate Bethlehem Sugar Factory -- one of the last of three to close down on St. Croix in the mid-1960s, Edwards said.
"The closing of the factory represented the territory's final shift over to an industrial society," he said. "But before that, most of the island's 84 square miles were almost completely taken up by sugar cane. Our cooperative has taken on the task of restoring the site and developing the island's agri-heritage industry."
On the site's 25 acres, Edwards plans on redeveloping the original 9,000-square-foot factory, along with a processing plant for mangoes (this will work on juices, jellies and other products), a cultural-arts school (to teach arts such as basket weaving and woodworking), and an animal sanctuary for farmers to showcase their livestock.
"It's a monumental task, but we've been working on it for a number of years now," Edwards said. "It needs to be done -- especially since the agricultural industry has been at a standstill for the past 30 to 40 years. The mission statement of the cooperative is to restore and bring back the importance of the agriculture industry, and that's what we're hoping to do through this project."
The architectural and engineering plans for the project -- funded through the Public Finance Authority -- have already been drawn up and are currently going through the permitting process at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Edwards said. The organization has also completed a one-hour documentary about the site.
Future goals for We Grow Food include getting more water to St. Thomas' West End, developing a composting facility and creating a long-term recycling program, Hodge said. The collective is also working with a group of restaurateurs to sell locally grown produce at businesses throughout the island.
Much of the organization's initiatives are done in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, where Hodge works. Expressing hope in the territory's new Agriculture commissioner, Louis Petersen, the farmers have also said that a stronger relationship with the department has provided the extra push needed to get several projects off the ground, either by leasing land to the farmers or providing them with additional sets of hands needed to help shoulder the loads.
Though the department is currently not in the "financial position" to support the farmers, it does help verify that farmers are collecting their tax benefits, Petersen said.
"Farmers that are operating on their own properties -- meaning that they are using their own land to support and promote agriculture -- receive significant tax exemptions," he said. "The department's role is to verify that these individuals are using their land for agricultural purposes and to make sure that they are receiving their benefits. This support is real, and it translates into real money."
The department also provides such support services as preparing farmland, slaughtering livestock and offering veterinary services at low rates to licensed farmers, Petersen said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency also provides funding for farmers who have suffered losses as a result of hurricanes or other natural disasters. Farmers have to be registered with the agency to receive the money, however. For more information, or to check if you are a registered farmer, contact 773-9146.
The Economic Development Authority also offers a Farmers and Fishermen Loan Program for individuals who have been doing business in the territory for at least three years. The maximum loan amount is $12,000, and the maximum loan term is four years. Farmers and fishermen applying for the loan also have to show that they have made $1,000 in gross annual sales to be eligible for the loan.
For a look at the history of agriculture in the territory, see Part 1 of this series: "Back to The Garden: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands."
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