The V.I Department of Agriculture can live within its budget, but needs $45,000 transferred from drought relief to its Tropical Bont Tick Program, Commissioner Louis Petersen told the Senate Finance Committee during budget hearings Wednesday.
"Without the additional resources, the program would be understaffed and unable to adequately meet the needs of farmers, conduct routine animal health inspections, and collect stray horses and livestock on the island of St. Croix," Petersen said.
"We are deeply concerned about the potential hazards that stray animals may cause, especially to vehicular traffic," Petersen said. Federal funding established the Tropical Bont Tick Program, but has since dried up, while the program remains important and needs local funding, Petersen said.
Along with expanding marketing efforts and ongoing work on cisterns and other agricultural infrastructure, this year Agriculture introduced the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which allows WIC recipients to use the food assistance to purchase fresh, local produce at the territory's farmers markets. This helps farmers and helps residents get the health benefits of fresh local produce, Petersen said.
Another significant agricultural development over the past year was the launch of a dairy goat operation at the site of the former Island Dairies on St. Croix, Petersen said. Once the public/private partnership between the V.I. Department of Agriculture and Windsor Farm is fully operational, "it will produce and market not only fresh milk, but value added items such as soaps, lotions and candies," Petersen said.
Agriculture used federal funding through the Forest Legacy Program to purchase 75.9 acres at Spring Hill and Estate Annaly Rose and Rose Hill on St. Croix for $869,000, Petersen said.
"One of the goals of the administration is that these acreages will become an integral part of the proposed territorywide park system" he said.
Also this year, the first annual Virgin Fresh Beekeepers Bazaar was organized on St. Thomas and St. Croix as a business venture for beekeepers and to showcase fresh, local products such as honey, soaps, lotions and lip balms.
Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s 2013 budget proposal recommends a general fund appropriation of $2.5 million for Agriculture, a 12.5 percent decrease from the previous year, with 94 percent marked for personnel costs and the rest for the department's utility bills, according to Petersen.
Another $379,000 the Agriculture Department will receive from the Miscellaneous Section of the Budget will support the Tropical Bont Tick Program, drought relief efforts and animal shelters throughout the territory. Petersen is asking to move funds around within this category, increasing Bont Tick funding, but keeping the total appropriation unchanged.
Miscellaneous funding will also provide $200,000 to support new and ongoing initiatives in accordance with provisions of the Sustainable Agriculture Act.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.