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The Government's Role: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands

Nov. 23, 2008 — The Department of Agriculture has long needed a comprehensive plan, one that focuses on how the territory can begin rebuilding its ailing agriculture industry and starts carving the path to a reduced dependence on imported foods and other commodities, according to Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen.
"As we continue to look at the prices of goods such as food and oil, we see that everything is going up and changing, and that means we have to put something in place that would take us through those changes," he said. "We have to begin putting an industry in place that can reduce our dependence on imported food, and to accomplish this, we have to stop focusing on the things that we can't do, and put the emphasis on the things we can do best, and that includes agriculture. We need to look at models that are unique to us, all the while keeping in mind our realities and challenges."
Getting down to business after his appointment to lead the department was announced by Gov. John deJongh Jr. about two years ago, one of the first things Petersen and his staff did was to begin brainstorming about what a potential agriculture policy should look like. They discussed the mission of the department, how their limited resources could be redirected to address priorities and what kind of goals needed to be accomplished on a daily basis.
"We also got input from the farmers, holding meetings in both districts," Petersen said. "From these individuals we received a lot of good input, and a general acceptance of what we were trying to do. We put all their ideas on paper, and at the end of that process, we now have, for the first time in many years, a strategic plan for the department and that industry that will take us through the next four years and lay the foundation for what happens beyond that."
Long-Range Plans
The plan's components were not arbitrarily developed — they were pieced together after several studies, conducted by local and off-island experts, provided the research needed to help determine what kind of viable agricultural industries could be developed within the territory. The research offered several links between tourism and agriculture, Petersen said, and looked at the kind of initiatives that could bring in the most return for the limited amount of resources used by the department and local farmers.
"For one thing, we have very small land holdings in the territory, so we have to look at nurturing those commodities that could bring in a high return for the land we have," he said. "One of those commodities is culinary herbs — such as thyme and chives — and the other is medicinal herbs, for which there is quite a variety, such as lemon grass and those basils used to make bush tea. Those are two really, really promising areas of development."
Those "high-value" crops could also be sold fresh or dried.
"We're looking at a value-added component of the industry — meaning what we can do to add shelf life to the commodities, including drying and packaging the product," Petersen said. "The farmers right now are selling them on the fresh market."
The department has received a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service to set up a pilot project for the production, promotion and packaging of culinary herbs, and will later apply for another set of funding to promote a model for medicinal herbs.
The beekeeping industry will also be a major focus for Agriculture, whose
approach to the production of value-added commodities would also look at candle-making and selling byproducts such as bee pollen, which is in high demand in health-food stores.
"This kind of industry requires limited land space, because bees go and forage up to a mile away before returning to their hive," Petersen said. "So we're not only speaking about honey production, but about items like the bee pollen that we can produce all year round as opposed to farms on the mainland that only produce these things during a certain season. So we have a similar pilot project in the works that will establish a model for production, packaging and marketing in a continuous manner. But that also means we have to look at training new beekeepers — ones who want to get into the industry for a profit. Bees are responsible for pollinating about two-thirds of the fruits and veggies that we eat, so it's in our best interest to protect what we have here."
To get the pilot project started on all three islands, Agriculture has received another $100,000 grant from the USDA's specialty crop block grant program.
"What we're doing here is looking for and directing our money to priority areas," Petersen said. "We are committed to seeking external funding to make our initiatives happen, and going after those federal funds that may not have been eligible for before, or that we simply did not know about. We worked hard, for example, to change federal laws to allow the Virgin Islands and other insular areas in this particular block grant funding program. The grant ends in 2012, and by that time, we would have received almost $1 million to develop any area under the heading of 'specialty crop' programs."
This year the department will also launch a pilot program for orchard development, and will provide various incentives for those farmers who chose to participate. The program will focus on the cultivation of papaya, avocadoes, limes, oranges and pineapples, Petersen said.
Another initiative will focus on the cultivation of "leafy greens," for salads. Crops such as lettuce can be cut and allowed to regrow several times during the year, Petersen said.
"In terms of our livestock industry, we're going to be focusing on smaller animals," he added. "Studies have shown that due to the changes we have been trying to address, such as the energy crisis and the rising cost of food, the maintenance of large livestock is not really practical at this time. So we're going to focus on sheep, swine and poultry, and will be training producers."
Infrastructure Needs
It's no secret that the territory does not currently have the type of infrastructure needed to support an agricultural industry, particularly when it comes to the distribution of water to many farms throughout the islands. The department is trying to solve that problem by buying water-storage tanks in bulk to sell to residents, with shipments coming in for both districts, Petersen said. On St. Croix, the department has also been trying to funnel water to the Community Garden in Estate Lower Love by connecting to a nearby water well, and is preparing to install a 135,000-gallon tank — previously owned by the V.I. Water and Power Authority — in the same area.
On St. Thomas, the department is also building a new water-storage pond in Estate Bordeaux, which is expected to hold more than one million gallons, Petersen said.
"We have also constructed a new water-pipe stand in the same area," he said. "There is a spring that flows through Bordeaux that hasn't been used, and we have redirected water to 8,000-gallon-capacity tanks, which will continuously be refreshed by the spring. It's a finished product, and it's a big thing, because at any given time there's 8,000 gallons that farmers can use. Farmers don't now have to pay for the water or inconvenience themselves to leave the area. This is one of our very big initiatives, and one of our interim plans to address the needs in Bordeaux. We are also looking at constructing three cisterns, with a capacity of at least 300,000 gallons."
The design plans for the cisterns have already been submitted, and are currently before the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for approval. If the department gets the green stamp, the project would then be put out to bid, Petersen said.
The distribution of government l
and to local farmers is also a priority area. On St. Thomas alone, Agriculture has about 250 acres of land available for lease, but there has never really been a system put in place that determines who gets it, he said.
"I wish there was a better system of distribution, and that's something we're definitely trying to address," Petersen said. "So far, plots of land have been issued to those who have applied for us, but what we've recently been trying to do is make sure that we don't lease anything without making sure the farmer has a business plan in place."
Farmers need to demonstrate they know what they're getting themselves into.
"I think this is important, because one of the concerns we've had is that people don't understand that farming is a business, not a hobby, and it's time for us to emphasize to those who use government land that they have to use a business approach, look at what they intend to invest in the land, and what kind of time they have to make the investment. We ask those kind of questions to all the farmers who come to us, just to make sure we're all on the same page and don’t repeat the same mistakes we've made in the past."
A community garden for residents on St. John is expected to be set up in Coral Bay, with the department subdividing and leasing about for acres of land to local producers.
To get the word out about these plans, the department's marketing program has also been revived, Petersen said.
"It was dormant for years," he said. "Now, with our efforts, we have been able to link our producers directly to the consumers. At this point, we're dealing mostly with the restaurant industry, because those individuals require smaller amounts of produce and we have to make sure that can work out before we move onto a larger scale. So far, this has been done on all three islands through our 'Go Local, Buy Local and Eat Fresh' campaign."
Other efforts focus on the media and youth.
"We also have a weekly radio program on WSTX on Saturday mornings called 'Fresh from the Farm,' and have been putting up as many posters as possible and going into the schools to show where residents can pick up fresh products," Petersen said. "It's all about making sure everybody knows who our producers are, and where they can go to buy their stuff."
The department's strategic plan has already gotten the thumbs up from deJongh, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of building the territory's independence in light of the nation's declining economy.
"The government's role, particularly in this industry at this time, given its early-stage development to a sustainable industry, is one of both facilitator and investor," the governor said recently. "We have the land, the natural resources and, for the most part the equipment, and provide some loans. The combined effort is to put them to use with those in the industry that approach farming as a business and that we can achieve levels of predictability to supply our stores, tourist partners, and schools and prisons."
The government can help in several different ways, deJongh said.
"… [W]e are a facilitator to those providers in ensuring access to federal grants, marketing programs and technical assistance," he said. "The cost of food and the fact we are import reliant on our supply necessitates that we take very seriously and put the resources towards fostering an industry that can provide some food supply consistency."
Editor's note: Previous articles in the Source's agriculture series are "Back to The Garden: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands," "Homegrown: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands," "Growing Our Own: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands" and "Success Stories: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands."
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.

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Nov. 23, 2008 -- The Department of Agriculture has long needed a comprehensive plan, one that focuses on how the territory can begin rebuilding its ailing agriculture industry and starts carving the path to a reduced dependence on imported foods and other commodities, according to Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen.
"As we continue to look at the prices of goods such as food and oil, we see that everything is going up and changing, and that means we have to put something in place that would take us through those changes," he said. "We have to begin putting an industry in place that can reduce our dependence on imported food, and to accomplish this, we have to stop focusing on the things that we can't do, and put the emphasis on the things we can do best, and that includes agriculture. We need to look at models that are unique to us, all the while keeping in mind our realities and challenges."
Getting down to business after his appointment to lead the department was announced by Gov. John deJongh Jr. about two years ago, one of the first things Petersen and his staff did was to begin brainstorming about what a potential agriculture policy should look like. They discussed the mission of the department, how their limited resources could be redirected to address priorities and what kind of goals needed to be accomplished on a daily basis.
"We also got input from the farmers, holding meetings in both districts," Petersen said. "From these individuals we received a lot of good input, and a general acceptance of what we were trying to do. We put all their ideas on paper, and at the end of that process, we now have, for the first time in many years, a strategic plan for the department and that industry that will take us through the next four years and lay the foundation for what happens beyond that."
Long-Range Plans
The plan's components were not arbitrarily developed -- they were pieced together after several studies, conducted by local and off-island experts, provided the research needed to help determine what kind of viable agricultural industries could be developed within the territory. The research offered several links between tourism and agriculture, Petersen said, and looked at the kind of initiatives that could bring in the most return for the limited amount of resources used by the department and local farmers.
"For one thing, we have very small land holdings in the territory, so we have to look at nurturing those commodities that could bring in a high return for the land we have," he said. "One of those commodities is culinary herbs -- such as thyme and chives -- and the other is medicinal herbs, for which there is quite a variety, such as lemon grass and those basils used to make bush tea. Those are two really, really promising areas of development."
Those "high-value" crops could also be sold fresh or dried.
"We're looking at a value-added component of the industry -- meaning what we can do to add shelf life to the commodities, including drying and packaging the product," Petersen said. "The farmers right now are selling them on the fresh market."
The department has received a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service to set up a pilot project for the production, promotion and packaging of culinary herbs, and will later apply for another set of funding to promote a model for medicinal herbs.
The beekeeping industry will also be a major focus for Agriculture, whose
approach to the production of value-added commodities would also look at candle-making and selling byproducts such as bee pollen, which is in high demand in health-food stores.
"This kind of industry requires limited land space, because bees go and forage up to a mile away before returning to their hive," Petersen said. "So we're not only speaking about honey production, but about items like the bee pollen that we can produce all year round as opposed to farms on the mainland that only produce these things during a certain season. So we have a similar pilot project in the works that will establish a model for production, packaging and marketing in a continuous manner. But that also means we have to look at training new beekeepers -- ones who want to get into the industry for a profit. Bees are responsible for pollinating about two-thirds of the fruits and veggies that we eat, so it's in our best interest to protect what we have here."
To get the pilot project started on all three islands, Agriculture has received another $100,000 grant from the USDA's specialty crop block grant program.
"What we're doing here is looking for and directing our money to priority areas," Petersen said. "We are committed to seeking external funding to make our initiatives happen, and going after those federal funds that may not have been eligible for before, or that we simply did not know about. We worked hard, for example, to change federal laws to allow the Virgin Islands and other insular areas in this particular block grant funding program. The grant ends in 2012, and by that time, we would have received almost $1 million to develop any area under the heading of 'specialty crop' programs."
This year the department will also launch a pilot program for orchard development, and will provide various incentives for those farmers who chose to participate. The program will focus on the cultivation of papaya, avocadoes, limes, oranges and pineapples, Petersen said.
Another initiative will focus on the cultivation of "leafy greens," for salads. Crops such as lettuce can be cut and allowed to regrow several times during the year, Petersen said.
"In terms of our livestock industry, we're going to be focusing on smaller animals," he added. "Studies have shown that due to the changes we have been trying to address, such as the energy crisis and the rising cost of food, the maintenance of large livestock is not really practical at this time. So we're going to focus on sheep, swine and poultry, and will be training producers."
Infrastructure Needs
It's no secret that the territory does not currently have the type of infrastructure needed to support an agricultural industry, particularly when it comes to the distribution of water to many farms throughout the islands. The department is trying to solve that problem by buying water-storage tanks in bulk to sell to residents, with shipments coming in for both districts, Petersen said. On St. Croix, the department has also been trying to funnel water to the Community Garden in Estate Lower Love by connecting to a nearby water well, and is preparing to install a 135,000-gallon tank -- previously owned by the V.I. Water and Power Authority -- in the same area.
On St. Thomas, the department is also building a new water-storage pond in Estate Bordeaux, which is expected to hold more than one million gallons, Petersen said.
"We have also constructed a new water-pipe stand in the same area," he said. "There is a spring that flows through Bordeaux that hasn't been used, and we have redirected water to 8,000-gallon-capacity tanks, which will continuously be refreshed by the spring. It's a finished product, and it's a big thing, because at any given time there's 8,000 gallons that farmers can use. Farmers don't now have to pay for the water or inconvenience themselves to leave the area. This is one of our very big initiatives, and one of our interim plans to address the needs in Bordeaux. We are also looking at constructing three cisterns, with a capacity of at least 300,000 gallons."
The design plans for the cisterns have already been submitted, and are currently before the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for approval. If the department gets the green stamp, the project would then be put out to bid, Petersen said.
The distribution of government l and to local farmers is also a priority area. On St. Thomas alone, Agriculture has about 250 acres of land available for lease, but there has never really been a system put in place that determines who gets it, he said.
"I wish there was a better system of distribution, and that's something we're definitely trying to address," Petersen said. "So far, plots of land have been issued to those who have applied for us, but what we've recently been trying to do is make sure that we don't lease anything without making sure the farmer has a business plan in place."
Farmers need to demonstrate they know what they're getting themselves into.
"I think this is important, because one of the concerns we've had is that people don't understand that farming is a business, not a hobby, and it's time for us to emphasize to those who use government land that they have to use a business approach, look at what they intend to invest in the land, and what kind of time they have to make the investment. We ask those kind of questions to all the farmers who come to us, just to make sure we're all on the same page and don’t repeat the same mistakes we've made in the past."
A community garden for residents on St. John is expected to be set up in Coral Bay, with the department subdividing and leasing about for acres of land to local producers.
To get the word out about these plans, the department's marketing program has also been revived, Petersen said.
"It was dormant for years," he said. "Now, with our efforts, we have been able to link our producers directly to the consumers. At this point, we're dealing mostly with the restaurant industry, because those individuals require smaller amounts of produce and we have to make sure that can work out before we move onto a larger scale. So far, this has been done on all three islands through our 'Go Local, Buy Local and Eat Fresh' campaign."
Other efforts focus on the media and youth.
"We also have a weekly radio program on WSTX on Saturday mornings called 'Fresh from the Farm,' and have been putting up as many posters as possible and going into the schools to show where residents can pick up fresh products," Petersen said. "It's all about making sure everybody knows who our producers are, and where they can go to buy their stuff."
The department's strategic plan has already gotten the thumbs up from deJongh, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of building the territory's independence in light of the nation's declining economy.
"The government's role, particularly in this industry at this time, given its early-stage development to a sustainable industry, is one of both facilitator and investor," the governor said recently. "We have the land, the natural resources and, for the most part the equipment, and provide some loans. The combined effort is to put them to use with those in the industry that approach farming as a business and that we can achieve levels of predictability to supply our stores, tourist partners, and schools and prisons."
The government can help in several different ways, deJongh said.
"... [W]e are a facilitator to those providers in ensuring access to federal grants, marketing programs and technical assistance," he said. "The cost of food and the fact we are import reliant on our supply necessitates that we take very seriously and put the resources towards fostering an industry that can provide some food supply consistency."
Editor's note: Previous articles in the Source's agriculture series are "Back to The Garden: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands," "Homegrown: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands," "Growing Our Own: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands" and "Success Stories: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands."
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.