March 21, 2006 – The Virgin Islands Legislature celebrated National Agriculture Day with a daylong forum titled "Bridging Tradition with Technology: Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Production for the 21st Century." The forum, hosted by Senate President Lorraine Berry, took place Monday at the St. Croix Legislative Conference Room.
The plight of farmers and fisherman was highlighted as panelists exposed myriad problems facing the growth of agriculture in the territory. Fishermen voiced their concern with federally imposed restrictions on the territory's fishing waters. Livestock farmers complained that increasing insurance costs were driving them out of business.
"It's a burden," said Hans Lawaetz, an Annaly Farms livestock farmer. Lawaetz predicted that local beef farmers and dairy farmers would be out of business in two years. He said liability insurance is costing farmers $14,000 to $18,000 each year, and he implored the senators to subsidize the industry. "[Doing business] is not economically feasible, the only way we can survive is if the government subsidizes," he said.
"What is our leader's vision for Agriculture," asked Farmers in Action president Percival Edwards. "Something is wrong."
The Farmers in Action vice-president, Kendall Petersen, told senators that loan and leases to farmers were "out of reach." He asked senators to create an Agriculture Authority with the power to float its own bonds and to reinvest in the industry.
"To lose agriculture is to lose our culture, our self-worth and pride," said Elridge Thomas, of We Grow Food Inc., a collective of local farmers dedicated to organic farming. Thomas is involved with the Bordeaux farmers who have hosted agriculture fairs for the last nine years. Much of their farming is carved out of the rugged St. Thomas hillside.
Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis said agriculture needs to be taught in the elementary schools to get the youth interested in the field. He suggested schools get students involved in cultivating green houses and nurseries.
Several farmers said the Agriculture Department's budget needs to be increased to $5 million to satisfy its mandate. The department's present budget is approximately $2.5 million.
Fishermen decried the federal proposal that restricted much of the fishable waters around the Virgin Islands. Jimmy Magner and Julian Magras, members of the St. Thomas Fisherman's Association, said the territory has failed the Virgin Islands fishermen. They said DPNR is planning to close the French Town fishermen's market, has restricted the sale of fish at Market Square, and has relegated fish sales to a central location on St. Croix.
"It's an economic blockade," said St. Thomas fisherman David Berry
Arthur Petersen, former commissioner of agriculture, offered an alternative to traditional farming. He said with all the development that is coming, horticulture, ornamental plants and landscaping is a viable and money-making option.
Much of the information presented at the forum was also discussed at a four-day Agriculture Summit held Feb. 27 to March 2. The event was hosted by Sen. Terrence Nelson, Agriculture and Labor chairman. (See "Legislature Reviews State of Agriculture").
Other panelists involved in Monday's discussion included Kofi Boateng, UVI Cooperative Extensive Service associate director; John Farchette III, Mariculture consultant; Eldridge Thomas, We Grow Food Inc.; Eddy Williams, St. Croix Central High School agriculture instructor; Bevin Smith, V.I. Energy Office director; and Michelle Thurland-Martinez, U.S. Department of Agriculture county executive director. Also on the panel was Senate Vice-President Ronald E. Russell.
The forum was carried live on the government access channels as well as two local radio stations.
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