May 5, 2004 – Wednesday was the V.I. Agriculture Department's day to make a whole lot of people on St. Thomas happy, by giving leases to 52 farmers and a $90,000 check to the Humane Society of St. Thomas. In both instances the offerings had been a long time coming, but were gratefully received.
The check was for $15,000 more than the Agriculture Department had originally budgeted, thanks to the persistence of the Legislature.
And thanks to the persistence of the Bordeaux and North Side farmers, they now have leases which offer not only emotional security but financial possibilities they have not had before.
Now farmers know where they stand
The Bordeaux crop farmers battled for years to obtain leases for the government acreage they farmed. But they met time and again with legal maneuvering, bureaucratic roadblocks and efforts by other groups to take over the lands they had been tilling for so long.
"This changes the whole ball game," Gerald Hodge, a part-time Bordeaux crop farmer, said after Wednesday's ceremony, held at the Agriculture Department's North Side property. "Before, we didn't know where we stood."
Hodge, who shares a 4.5-acre plot with full-time farmer Eustace James, grows lettuce, other greens, tomatoes and seasonings. He sells his produce at the Bordeaux Market on the last Sunday of each month and makes deliveries to customers all over the island.
Sheila Schulterbrandt, president of the St. Thomas Livestock Association, also was among those receiving leases on Wednesday. She said the association is discouraging members from raising cattle, because "there's not enough land on St. Thomas."
The association tried in 1999 to obtain leases for the lands occupied by many of the Bordeaux farmers.
The leases awarded on Wednesday are for 20 years with an option to renew for another 10.
As he presented lease certificates to the farmers, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence W. Lewis offered them some advice, as well: Take advantage of low-interest loans available from the Government Bank.
He also said the Agriculture Department will pay for the shipping of fencing materials to the island and will sell the fencing to the farmers at cost in order to help them keep their livestock from wandering.
Sen. Luther Reneé, who chairs the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee, described agriculture as "a key sector in the economic development of the Virgin Islands," and one that has been overlooked too long.
Hodge said the farmers need additional help in the form of infrastructure and equipment. "Agriculture should have its own backhoes and other equipment," he said. "They shouldn't have to rely on Public Works for equipment."
He also noted that every time it rains, topsoil needed for farming is washed into the sea. "We need retaining walls," he said.
Hodge said it is time for the Agriculture Department to be taken as seriously as other governmental agencies.
There was discussion of the need for a marketing plan Lewis said the funds earmarked to help the farmers with that effort have been "used up." He advised the farmers to lobby the Legislature for more money.
Reneé said he has submitted a comprehensive fishing and farming bill that he expects to be reviewed by his committee "next week."
Legislature approves more money but not anti-cruelty bill
In presenting the $90,000 check to Joe Aubain, president of the Humane Society board, Lewis said the organization in large degree has Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg to thank for focusing public attention on the plight of the territory's over-burdened and under-funded animal shelters.
Donastorg also has repeatedly championed legislation to make animal cruelty a felony. His efforts have repeatedly been stymied in the Legislature.
In years past, Agriculture had allotted $75,000 to the Humane Society for providing contracted services such as animal control that would otherwise fall to the department.
Lisa Walker, Humane Society acting executive director, said some of the money just received will go immediately to pay for the housing of two particularly aggressive dogs that had to be quarantined off-site after they attacked a woman on a downtown street last week.
Walker explained that the V.I. Code requires dogs that bite humans to be held for 10 days before being euthanized, so they can be checked for rabies. One reason such dogs are not held at the shelter is threats from owners, she said. Another problem is when they are kept at the shelter, the special housing requirements force a situation where other dogs may have to be euthanized ahead of schedule.
"All of it costs money," Walker said.
In the first three months of this year, she said, the Humane Society picked up 570 animals. "Half were wild," she said.
In 1999, the Humane Society stopped picking up strays after the government failed to renew its long-standing annual contract with the organization and failed to allocate the $75,000 specified in the contract.
During the period when the not-for-profit organization was not providing pickup services, the Source was contacted about several dead animals one on a school campus that were left in the heat for days before being disposed of by a government agency.
Ken Archer Sylvester, whose job it is to pick up strays, offered a reminder on Wednesday as he, Aubain and Walker accepted the check: "Don't forget to spay and neuter your pets."
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