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HomeNewsArchivesBack to The Garden: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands

Back to The Garden: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands

Oct. 20, 2008 — From sugar cane to sugar apple, you name it and it was grown in the Virgin Islands, which was considered for centuries the "agricultural mecca" of the Caribbean, according to local experts.
Tracking down the history of agriculture in the territory isn't difficult — not only have volumes have been written on the subject, but residents on all three islands can share stories about how the territory functioned before there were grocery stores, when fresh produce was grown in backyard gardens and taken down to the local market on Saturdays for sale.
"In the 1960s, when I grew up on St. Thomas, there was no Pueblo or Plaza Extra," said Olasee Davis, local agriculture expert. "Everyone had things growing right in their backyards, and every weekend, the farmers on the island would bring their produce down to the market square. The market used to be everything to the people on St. Thomas, and it was a tradition for them to come down and buy fresh stuff from the farmers."
Early Growth
Agriculture has long been ingrained in the people of the Virgin Islands, dating back to the islands' original Taino, Arawak and Carib Indian inhabitants, and running until the mid-1960s, when the society transformed from agrarian to more industrial and tourism-based, Davis said. While the Indian populations relied heavily on the sea for food, researchers have also noted they cultivated a variety of crops, including corn, peppers, cassava, potatoes, cashews, squash and cacao beans.
Sugar cane and cotton became staple crops after the Danish occupation in the mid-1600s. By 1733, St. John boasted more than 100 sugar cane and cotton plantations, most of which were cultivated by slaves from West Africa, according to the V.I. National Park website. St. John and St. Thomas together produced a little more than two million pounds of sugar in 1796, Dr. Isaac Dookhan wrote in A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States.
But it was in fact St. Croix — with its flatter land and natural water stores — that served as the agricultural center of the Caribbean, Davis said, hitting its peak for sugar cane in 1812, and declining afterward because changes in sugar-importation rules, fluctuations in the worldwide economy and the later abolition of slavery, which resulted in the migration of many inhabitants to nearby islands such as Puerto Rico.
"All three islands were divided under the Danish into quarters, within which were estates of 150 or more acres of land," Davis said. "Denmark invited investors to the Caribbean, and it was during that time that agriculture on St. Croix really boomed. When these individuals got there, St. Croix had been largely untouched, and was forested. They began to clear the land and export the lumber, and also began growing sugar cane. By about 1812, at the height of the sugar-cane industry, St. Croix's maximum production was between 26,000 to 28,000 acres — more than half the island."
But as the economy began to change worldwide, the sugar-cane industry on St. Croix started to decline, he added. The islands' emancipation from slavery in 1848 also had a "huge impact" on agriculture, bringing down the maximum production of sugar cane to about 16,000 acres, Davis said. As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam on the mainland, the agricultural landscape in the territory began to change even further, Davis said.
"The many sugar-cane factories that we had on the island were cut down to three, one in Estate Bethlehem, one in Estate La Grange and another in Estate Richmond," he said. "Of course there were other initiatives: In 1910, the Danish set up a research station on St. Croix to see what other crops could be grown here, and in the 1930s we also had a cannery on the island for produce such as tomatoes, which were shipped to New York. But by the 1950s, two of the sugar cane factories had closed, and the last one — the one in Estate Richmond — was closed in 1966, which basically shut down the industry for good."
A study conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s by longtime St. Croix resident and agriculture professor Otis Hicks also pinpointed 1966 as the point of decline for agriculture in the territory, with the halt of sugar-cane production serving as the catalyst.
Arriving in the territory in 1957 from Louisiana, Hicks remembers that the island, at the time, was a major sugar-cane producer, with fields covering now industrialized areas such as Sunny Isles.
"There were essentially no buildings at all in that area, and it was all sugar cane," he said. "In Louisiana, they planted sugar cane once a year, and harvested by machine. There was not so much hard manual labor involved as in the Virgin Islands. Here, with no winter, they planted once every seven years, and the cane is so much thicker and intertwined it has to be cut by hand. It is much more labor-intensive.
"There also used to be about five poultry farms on St. Croix. When we got here, when you would go to the store, there were no eggs and no milk to be bought," he said, adding that he was able to buy those items directly from nearby farmers.
But as Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp. (now Hovensa) and Harvey Aluminum were ushered into the territory in the 1960s, the territory's switch over to industrialization was complete. Growth in the tourism sector also helped to bump the territory's revenues up to more than $100 million by 1975, due in large part to the shipment of petroleum products to the mainland, Arnold H. Leibowitz wrote in his 1989 book Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of the United States.
In his 1978 study, Hicks — who was working for the Department of Agriculture by that time — also pointed out that many of the territory's farmers and producers were senior citizens.
"Farming was going out and we didn't have the people," he said. After sugar-cane production was phased out, the U.S. government gave 2,000 acres of land to the V.I. government and then-Agriculture Commissioner Rudolph Schulterbrandt thought about distributing it among "qualified farmers," Hicks said.
"I began taking applications, and wouldn't you know it, out of more than 300 applications, not one person had any experience or training," he said. The land under Sunny Isles, the St. Croix Educational Complex, the Agriculture Department and UVI were all farmlands deeded over to the V.I. government, Hicks said.
Developments instead swallowed up most of the land, he added.
The Cattle Industry
St. Croix in particular has also been known worldwide for its cattle industry, according to Hans Lawaetz, chairman of the V.I. Senepol Association. The association started in 1974 with four breeders, and grew in the 1980s, with cattle being exported to the mainland and taken to Texas for breeding, he explained. The senepol is a cross between N'Dama cattle that were imported to St. Croix in the 1800s from Senegal in West Africa and the red poll bull from Trinidad, which was brought to the territory in 1918 by Bromley Nelthropp, whose father, Henry, was one of the largest breeders of the Senegalese cattle on St. Croix in the late 1800s.
Lawaetz's father, Frits, founder of Annaly Farms, bought one of the senepol herds in 1949 and began keeping records on the genetic makeup of each animal, along with its production, Lawaetz said.
"Over the years, the number of senepols on the island have begun to decline — I don't even think we have 5,000 on the island anymore," Lawaetz said, attributing the decrease in numbers to the high price of liability insurance and increased competition from smaller farms all over the world. Most of the livestock farmers on St. Croix have also switched over to breeding sheep and goats, he added, further decreasing the island's senepol stock.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Annaly Farms sol
d 15 to 20 animals per week — that number has now dropped between three and four per week, Lawaetz said. The drop in cows, coupled with federal grading regulations and high liability insurance, also put a damper on the territory's dairy farms, he said.
In 2006, St. Croix-based Island Dairies sold off all of its dairy cattle, shutting down its milking operations. The company, along with St. Thomas Dairies, now continues to manufacture its products out of dried milk-fat solids and frozen butterfat.
St. Thomas Dairies stopped adding fresh milk from its on-site cows after Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995. (See: "Lack of Access to Testing Costs Dairy Dearly.")
While the territory's agricultural landscape has changed over the years, it has not been completely eradicated. The next installment of the Source's agricultural series will focus on local farmers' organizations and activist groups, along with their farming methods, techniques and future plans for livestock and crop production.
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