The V.I. Agriculture Plan Task Force is seeking more feedback from the territory’s farmers to help create the document to steer the future of farming in the USVI.
University of the Virgin Island’s President David Hall called on the area’s growers for their input during a town hall meeting Thursday to discuss the plan.
The V.I. Agriculture Plan was authorized by Act 8404, which became law on Dec. 11, 2020. The law requested the commissioner of Agriculture and the UVI president create the plan. The Agricultural Plan Task Force was then organized to develop various aspects of the plan.
Thursday’s town hall presentation occurred in person at the UVI Administration and Conference Center on St. Thomas and was broadcast via Zoom conference call from the UVI Great Hall on St. Croix and the Cleone H. Creque Legislative Conference Room on St. John.
Hall presented months of research, consultation, and community outreach initiatives. The task force has held community town halls on three islands, held focus groups and distributed surveys to farmers, food retailers and the public to attain additional public input and present its findings.
Hall said the goal of the Territorial Agriculture Plan is to increase the U.S. Virgin Islands’ agricultural productivity for food security and sovereignty, not just come up with some labels and catchphrases.
“We have listened to territory farmers, gardeners, the community and stakeholders to understand the challenges, concerns, successes and priorities,” said Hall.
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, an audience member had concerns relating to the farmers’ response and whether all farmers were included in the survey. Hall said that 60 percent of farmers responded.
“We’ve reached out to every farmer, and it is as close to accurate as we can get. All we can do is ask people to respond,” he said.
Hall also said that the task force specifically hired someone to reach out to farmers.
“We will continue to reach out until this process is over. Like with any survey you are not going to get 100 percent of the population but getting a number this high is at least representative of the overall population. But we would like to get a response from more and more farmers.”
Hall said the task force welcomes any concerns the farmers may have to provide feedback and any concerns or thoughts in the process. “If you want to be involved, we want you to be involved. Not being on the task force doesn’t mean your voice is not heard,” Hall said.
“These are not David Hall’s ideas. I know little about farming, but I know how to listen, and I know how to read, and I have read these surveys and analyzed them and what the farmers are saying to us is what we are responding to.”
Some of the task force’s findings so far comprise eight mandates and six high-priority recommendations, along with other steps.
Hall said the survey showed farmers are not able to use all their resources.
“Close to half of the people who responded to the survey indicated that less than 25 percent of their farm is in production. That is saying that 75 percent is not in production. If you take that as a snapshot it says that we as a task force and the government need to find out, how do we help farmers put more of their land into production.”
Hall said that many farmers are selling their products to supermarkets, restaurants and others. What the survey said is that close to 70 percent of those who are engaged in farming sell their crops and produce directly to the consumers. They are not going to a middle person.
“That says something to us about what we need to do to ensure that process of production, to sale, to consumption, is a smooth one. This was also very encouraging because close to 70 percent of the farmers who responded to the survey said that they were interested in participating in more training and education,” Hall said.
Recommendations in the draft of the plan include increasing local agricultural productivity by two percent each year, increasing the acreage in production by 10 percent, increasing the number of licensed farmers by five percent each year, increasing the number of individuals engaged in home gardening and community growing by 10 percent each year, and reducing the number of agriculture imports by two percent each year.
“In the final report we will have a list of all of the laws related to agriculture that were passed and were not funded, but what we think should be funded,” Hall said.
“Without the funding, it becomes a nice idea that doesn’t occur,” said Hall.
Hall said the plan will require significant governmental investment supporting one-time and recurring recommended provisions. The task force has developed some tentative budget estimates and will develop a final budget request after receiving input from the farming community. The task force meets every Friday and will consider the comments and concerns presented at the town hall meeting.