“Everyone has a green thumb,” according to Eldridge Thomas, “they just might not know it.”
Thomas is the president of We Grow Food Inc., which sponsored the 23rd annual Bordeaux Rastafari Farmers Vegan Food Fair on St. Thomas.
Although the primary focus of We Grow Food is supporting commercial farming, the organization also promotes community agricultural programs and encourages homeowners to plant fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
“Less than one percent of our food is grown here, and there is no excuse for that,” Thomas said. Locally grown food makes sense for community health and the V.I. economy.
Thomas offered basic information on home gardening.
Simple container bins in a sunny spot can be used by most households to grow lettuce, greens, okra, green beans and tomatoes, he said. An organic mix of garlic, hot peppers and water helps keep the bugs away, as does including onions and chives in the bin. For fruit trees in the yard, he emphasized preparing the soil by loosening it up and adding dried organic material such as leaves and cuttings to provide nutrients and aeration, plus leaving plenty of space around the tree, keeping weeds clear and adding mulch to retain moisture and shield the roots from the heat of the sun.
Unfortunately, many households that did have fruit trees and gardens lost them during the hurricanes (along with so many other things).
“Replant with a vengeance” advised Lewis Petersen from the University of the Virgin Islands’ Cooperative Extension Service.
Petersen recommended those who have the space should replant two or three trees for every one that was lost. But don’t crowd them together or set them in the shade of the house. They grow best with unobstructed 360-degree light. Also, keep in mind that some fruit trees, such as sugar apples and soursops, can produce fruit within a few years from seeds, whereas others, such as mangos, grow more slowly from seeds, so gardeners will get a faster return if they plant grafted trees.
He also stressed the importance of building up the soil so it can support tree growth. Incorporate manure from animals or organic compost from yard cuttings and food waste, he suggested. If some people’s yards don’t have enough space for onsite composting, it might be possible to put together a neighborhood composting area to support nearby gardening.
Petersen also explained that in response to hurricane losses and further expected impacts of climate change, UVI is coordinating a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program that promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability in the Virgin Islands. One of the main focus areas is on long-term protection of natural resources through practices such as terracing hillsides and planting along contours in order to conserve soil and reduce runoff during storms. Improper land clearing can lead to loss of valuable soil, while appropriate tree planting can stabilize the hillsides.
UVI is offering a two-week summer program at UVI called AgDiscovery, Petersen said, which will offer middle school and high school students a chance to develop skills and interests in horticulture, agribusiness, animal science and aquaculture. Information on the program is available by contacting Petersen at [email protected] Applications are due by March 20.
Meanwhile, Charles Leonard, one of the farmers participating in the fair, has engaged his daughter, Britany, in the business. In 1981 he became one of the first farmers to get a lease from the V.I. government on land for farming in the Bordeaux area, and has made a continuing success of it. He said he has taken advantage of many UVI extension classes over the years to improve his operations. Like everyone else, he suffered losses during the hurricanes and, together with Jeanne Fatie Delsoin, is gradually replanting new trees to replace the ones that were lost.
Petersen warned that no one should plant new trees without a reliable irrigation line, given the long dry periods in the Virgin Islands, and an adequate water supply is certainly one of the major challenges for all the Bordeaux famers. They are hoping that new funding for the V.I. Department of Agriculture will help support new water systems and infrastructure and expand the territory’s capacity for growing food locally.