Fencing and Water are Top V.I. Farmer Needs

Cistern and new irrigation lines bring water in Estate Upper Love. (File photo)
Cistern and new irrigation lines bring water in Estate Upper Love. (File photo)

Fencing and water are the top needs of V.I. farmers, officials told senators at an oversight hearing Wednesday.

“We are still struggling to bring water to our farmers here in the Virgin Islands,” Sen. Allison Degazon, chairwoman of the Economic Development and Agriculture Committee said as the oversight hearing opened.

“Water preservation, storage and distribution,” are major parts of the Agriculture Department’s mission, acting Commissioner Positive Nelson told the committee a little later. He said he would like to see several projects to collect, store and distribute rainwater, through dams and other methods, during his tenure as commissioner.

Later, near the end of the hearing, Eldridge Thomas of We Grow Food Inc. on St. Thomas cited water, a cistern, distribution pipes and a backhoe among the capital items he would like to have.

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“Based on all the testimony, the main issue is water,” Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT) said before asking how soon a cistern in Estate Bordeaux was likely to be complete and in service.

A U.S. Department of Interior grant of $185,000 is earmarked for a 100,000 gallon cistern for Estate Bordeaux.

“If all goes as planned, within four to five months it should be completed and ready for use,” Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Erroll Chichester said. They had a pre-bid meeting and contractors have visited the site. Next, they have to submit bids to property and procurement, he said.

On St. Croix, farmers can have water for free at the Community Gardens in Estate Upper Love. Most have to pay to transport it to their farms – or get a tank, put it in a pickup, fill it and carry the water themselves.

Cucumbers and other produce were on sale at the La Reine farmer's market on St. Croix recently. (Bill Kossler photo)
Cucumbers and other produce were on sale at the La Reine farmer’s market on St. Croix recently. (Bill Kossler photo)

Most farming is on St. Croix. In 2017, there were 253 licensed farmers in the St. Croix District. By 2018, that shrank to 171. Chichester said about 40 to 50 farmers are in the community gardens and able to directly irrigate for free.

The Agriculture Department installed PVC irrigation lines in 2017.

Dr. Bethany Bradford, the head of veterinary services at the department, said livestock farmers needed fencing most.

“In general livestock farmers receive little help from USDA, FEMA, SBA or the Department of Agriculture. … Fencing materials are the number one item needed and to date nothing has been provided in that area.” Bradford said.

Farm-to-school and farm-to-store programs have been moribund since the 2017 storms, officials said.

But there is room for growth in local food production and sales to schools, the hospitals and stores, said Billy Abraham, director of marketing at the Agriculture Department. Both schools and stores have expressed interest but are frustrated by an inability to get enough to stock the shelves and to know ahead of time what is coming in.

Abraham said they have had some luck with a “crop of the month” concept. The idea, he said, was to get several farmers together to all plant a single crop to bring into the schools and to the stores.

He said they got several farmers to focus on cucumbers.

“In August, the harvest of the month was cucumbers. And the management of Plaza (Extra) canceled a shipment of cucumbers because they had the crop of the month,” he said, touting it as a concrete example of a small but measurable reduction in importation of food.

The Agriculture Department has 51 employees, with 32 classified, union members; one nonunion and 18 exempt employees. Of those, 41 are on St. Croix. The department’s 2019 budget is $4.5 million.

Of the 171 licensed farmers, there are 115 livestock farmers, with 83 on St. Croix; 24 on St. Thomas and eight on St. John, according to data provided at the hearing. Goats account for the largest number of livestock, with 7,500 on St. Croix, 500 on St. Thomas and 150 on St. John. Sheep are next, with 3,000 on St. Croix among 22 farmers; 500 on St. Thomas among five farmers and 75 on St. John among two farmers. St. Croix has 500 cows, St. Thomas has 15 and St. John has 10. St. Croix has 551 pigs, St. Thomas has 50 and St. John has 71.

The abattoir on St. Croix is running but will close during the upcoming Agrifest, Feb. 16, 17 and 18, Chichester said. But the St. Thomas abattoir is closed indefinitely and needs major renovations.

Committee members present were: Degazon, Blyden, Sens. Novelle Francis, Oakland Benta, Athneil Thomas, Novelle Francis, Kurt Vialet and Donna Frett-Gregory. Sens. Myron Jackson and Dwayne DeGraff were absent. Senate President Kenneth Gittens, not a committee member, also attended briefly.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Some of the other questions that should of been asked are all public, not private farmers licensed and paying taxes? How much money is made from the leasing of government land? Do the farmers pay for water? If no, who does? How much money in grants were appropriated for the private sector compared public sector? How is that determined? How much money did agriculture make via selling seedlings, abitoir,selling feed and veterinary services? Are they making enough money to at lease pay their employees salaries? Is the government owned equipment available to private farmers for a fee? Is a driver provided? Why does a private farmer need a permit and drawings from DPNR to till the soil, make terraces, and build shelter for their animals and not the public farmer? Doesn’t the same laws exist for both farmers? What needs to be done in the agriculture in order for the department to sustain itself? Does the department of agriculture have land with a nursery that school students, tourist, and the community can go to and learn about the different types of trees, fruits and forms of farming and also buy seeds and seedlings? Is there any farming co-ops that include private and public farmers? Sure like to know?

    • Agriculture departments are not set up to make profits, they are basically operated in every country to assist farmers with food production. Just as the USDA, do you really think that agency in the U.S. actually makes money with all of the subsidies that they dish out every year to farmers. If the USDA was about profits, you would not be able to afford the food that you consumer and the prices that you are paying. Go and ask the USDA those same questions

  2. Instead of just building cisterns which can run out of water during the dry season, the government needs to invest in a small reverse osmosis plant in the Bordeaux area so that there can be a constant supply of water. Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results is just crazy but that’s just how the Virgin Islands official roles. SMH.

  3. Brad, I wasn’t talking about the United States Department of Agriculture, I was talking about local department of Agriculture. Subsidies doesn’t apply to the VI farmers. We don’t produce enough food in order to qualified? Also, I did not mention anything about profit. I mentioned salaries being sustained by in-house sales of seedlings , seed, grain,hay, and veterinary services.? USDA office in the VI has assisted farmers after the hurricanes and have assisted farmers for many years with their livestock and produce farms. I found your comment informative all the same and I agree with you with replacing cisterns with reverse osmosis plant. Makes sense.

    • I know that you was not talking about the USDA but i was making a comparison because you made seems as if the local agriculture department should not be spending money on the local famers to help them to become more productive. I could have misunderstood you were saying. Was that your intention to say that the agriculture department should support local farmers with money and other resources?

  4. No . I was talking about self -sustainability! This department has a lot of potential ! A lot. The people that work there are knowledgeable about farming and agriculture . They are crossed trained and can do each other’s jobs. That is a good thing! My issue of concern is farmers not working collaboratively. Both public and private. I met a public farmer at an agriculture meeting who complaining that he couldn’t get his farmland tilled because he did not have a tiller. A private farmer stated he had one. The private farmer was at the meeting hoping to sell his 1000 pineapples. Both farmers needed help but no one said anything. No one said I will buy your pineapples for the school lunch program or I have a tiller and I can help you with the tilling. Both left frustrated without resolving their issues.? Instead they were told to sell their own pineapples elsewhere and we don’t have a tiller so we can’t help you. The answer was right in front of them but the person who was having the meeting was not hearing them and was not thinking about helping farmers but instead discouraging them. That is what I am talking about. Listening, helping and fairly assisting both private and public farmers.

    • Katie, the issue you raised regarding relationships in the farming community is really important, and is related to broader questions of (i) the structure and sustainability of the agriculture sector, and (ii) the role of local agriculture in food security for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      The local agricultural sector is highly subsidized, and at some point there should be an objective analysis of the sector, particularly in the context of increasing levels of risks associated with climate change and intense weather events.

  5. Variable precipitation associated with climate change means longer droughts and more intense rainfall events. Discussion of a water storage system should extend beyond dams and impoundments to include aquifer recharge. That of course leads to the issue of land use, which most people are apparently reluctant to address. It may also be time to renew discussions on the use of wasterwater for agricultural purposes.

  6. Point taken. You are absolutely correct! Climate change is an issue. My family has been independently farming in the VI since 1896 and they have always stated that the weather is changing and farming is becoming increasingly more difficult due to drought, storms, and chemicals waste runoffs from the neighboring community. We believe in clean soil, clean water and clean food. No chemicals. Well water is our water of choice. Not all wells are clean so testing of water is important. Waste water makes me nervous but maybe I need to do more research on that matter. Thanks for the food for thought. I appreciate the input.

  7. Did some research on aquifer recharging. What a great concept. What a differences that would make for all farmers and agriculture in the Virgin Islands. I think it should seriously be considered especially now with the legalization of medicinal cannabis. Yeh, I learned something amazing thanks to you! Keep sharing!

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