Farming is one possible path for the Virgin Islands to escape its economic problems, members of the Senate were told Tuesday, but it's also more than that. Farming is also cool.
"Agriculture is the new exciting thing," said Nate Olive of Ridge to Reef Farm, taking about new directions in farming and new technologies that help growers succeed. "This is not your daddy's agriculture or your granddaddy's agriculture. I think agriculture is cool."
Olive was one of a handful of witnesses testifying before an even smaller handful of senators Tuesday during a daylong hearing to seek solutions to the territory's economy. The hearing, held in the Senate's Frits E. Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix, was scheduled by the Legislature to “Analyze the Financial and Economic Data Affecting Revenues and Spending Practices of the Government of the Virgin Islands.”
The sparse attendance at the session drew scorn from one testifier, Percival Edwards, who noted the senators had scheduled the session back in February, but when it finally was held, "It's an empty room."
"There's no coordination," he said. "We have potential, but there's no coordination."
Slated to begin at 9 a.m., the session – convened as a "committee of the whole" – was gaveled to order by Sen. Janet Millin-Young at about 10 a.m. At that point Millin-Young and Senate President Ronald Russell were the only lawmakers in the chamber. By the time the session ended almost six hours later, they had been joined by Sens. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, Shawn Michael Malone and Terrence "Positive" Nelson. Sen. Sammuel Sanes was excused for a conflicting meeting on energy, and Sen. Craig Barshinger wrote that he also had a conflict.
Nelson, who arrived fairly late, suggested that growing and producing hemp fiber in the territory could be the trigger for an economic recovery.
"Hemp, hemp, hooray!" Nelson said.
For Olive, there is tremendous potential in developing agriculture. Studies show that 95 to 99 percent of the food consumed on St. Croix comes from off island. Tilapia grown in China and Vietnam are flown around the world to be eaten on St. Croix.
That figure signals a tremendous opportunity, Olive said. "We have an opportunity where the solution lies in the problem," he said.
Olive said consumers have to learn to "eat seasonally," as farmers offer "a great, varied diet based on what we can grow here."
O'Reilly said one difficulty local entrepreneurs face is that banks don't offer startup financing for small businesses.
"Government borrows so much from local banks, we crowd the market. It limits the opportunities for businesses to borrow," the senator said.
Other speakers included:
- Carlos Farchette, a member of the Caribbean Fisheries Council, who talked about the multi-million dollar impact of the fishing industry on the territory. Fishermen spend more time selling their fish than catching them, he said, and help in marketing would make local fishers be more efficient and productive.
- Mary Moorhead, who reminded the senators that economic development can't be sustained without education. She also said agriculture could be the engine that drives economic recovery for the territory, but called for respecting traditional values and culture. She also called on government help for people who own large homes with spare room to create bed and breakfast opportunities.
- Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, extolled the growing importance of cultural tourism. "I see incredible opportunity as we transition from the industrial base, large employer economy to a more diverse economy," she said.
But Gerard’s strongest words were about the importance of follow-through. She said she had taken part in a comprehensive economic development study a decade ago. "It was phenomenal,” she said.
“The report covered every aspect of the economy,” Gerard said, “but the implementation section of that economic development plan, a five-year plan, was less than 10 pages. If we don't plan to implement, we plan to be here next year and the year after that and the year after that."