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People Willing to Farm in the Islands Is Dwindling

July 19, 2004 – The U.S. Virgin Islands faces numerous challenges when it comes to growing crops, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis told the Source during a break in Monday's Caribbean Food Crops Society conference at the Westin Resort in St. John.
While pests and implementation of modern technology are pressing problems, the lack of people to farm may be even bigger.
"The average age of farmers is 60," Lewis said. He said there is little interest from younger people, mainly because the work is hard and the pay is low.
The conference began Monday and runs through Friday. It brought together about 250 professionals whose work concerns food crops from across the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland. Most are from universities or government agencies.
The organization was founded in St. Croix in 1963. While it meets in the Virgin Islands every 10 years, this was the first time it held its annual meeting in St. John.
"The Garden of Eden could not have been prettier than this," said Alberto Beale, a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico and chairman of the Food Crops board of directors.
Lewis, in his remarks to the conference, joked that the event gave scientists an opportunity to present papers so they could be promoted.
"And it's an opportunity for some of the rest to have a little vacation," he said
Seventy-five of its members will make presentations on a variety of topics over the five days. Many of those topics are aimed at using technology to improve farming.
"We need to take a quantum leap forward," said Malachy Dottin, a researcher for the Grenada government and past president of the society.
Kwame Garcia, who heads Cooperative Extension at the University of the Virgin Islands, and is the current Food Crops president, said the work done by those at the conference helped to raise the Caribbean's standard of living.
LaVerne Ragster, UVI's president, gave the keynote speech. She reminded those at the conference that agriculture was a business, a fact that often gets lost in the romanticism of the work.
She said that to help farmers develop their business acumen, the university offers courses in record keeping. She said it was particularly important because farmers are eligible for aid if they suffer damage in a storm.
"If you have no records, you get no dollars," she said.
She said that small islands need entrepreneurs, including farmers, but noted that UVI had as students 75 women to every 25 men, a situation causes an imbalance in the island's society.
Ragster called on those at the conference to forge partnerships to help solve the Caribbean's farming issues.
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