Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen presented the Agriculture Department’s budget request of $2.96 million to the Finance Committee on Monday. That sum is composed of $2.5 million from the General Fund and $461,000 in nonappropriated funds from fees for services to farmers. The territory will also provide $350,000 in the miscellaneous section of the budget to support new and ongoing initiatives through the Sustainable Agriculture Act.
Since 2009 the Department of Agriculture’s personnel level decreased by 31 percent – many of the staff who retired, resigned or were otherwise dismissed had technical training, expertise and years of experience in the field of agriculture, Petersen said. The rest of the staff are taking up the slack, he said.
Another major challenge has involved land and property management. Although the department is making progress in managing public farmland, more improvements are needed, Petersen said. During the current fiscal year, more than 30 notices to vacate were issued to nonproductive occupants of public farmland and another eight leases were recommended to the Department of Property and Procurement for termination, he said.
“Perhaps one of the most effective tools in land management employed by our team is the mandatory requirement for producers to submit business plans and participate in a prescreening interview before acquiring public farmland. This process has yielded much success in identifying the candidates most prepared to succeed,” Petersen said.
In the next year, more improvements are planned for the Community Gardens on St. Croix where, with help from the V.I. National Guard, Agriculture will complete repairs to the reassembled water storage tank, which will support increased crop and livestock production, he said.
Agriculture officials also expect to partner with private enterprise to establish a large grain storage facility on St. Croix for bulk purchases of feed. “The goal of this project is to reduce the purchase cost of imported grain feed through bulk purchase, thereby reducing operational costs for farmers while stimulating increased production and profit,” Petersen said.
On St. Thomas, the Estate Bordeaux Farmers Market will complete a solar energy system with help from the V.I. Energy Office, he said.
No votes were taken at the information gathering budget hearing.