July 23, 2004 – To fund development of the territory's agriculture sector, levy a 2 percent tax on food and beverages for five years, suggested Kendall Petersen, vice president of St. Croix Farmers in Action.
"It would cost a family of four $12 a month," Petersen said.
Petersen and a handful of other V.I. farmers made presentations on the closing day of the Caribbean Food Crops Society annual meeting held at the Westin Resort on St. John.
He said the money would create a $35.7 million capital development fund for agriculture. Of that figure, $15 million would be put in a revolving loan fund to help farmers get into business, while another $15 million would go to the local government for the purchase of farmland it would then resell to farmers.
Petersen also suggested the creation of a semi-autonomous Agriculture Authority.
In response to a question from the audience, Petersen said St. Croix Farmers in Action plans to lobby the legislators for approval of the tax and creation of the Agriculture Authority. "We'll get real political and turn up the flame," he said.
He estimated that agriculture in the Virgin Islands could become an $85 million-a-year industry that would create 2,000 to 5,000 new jobs. He said that would be 30 times the $2.8 million now generated by the territory's agriculture industry and 30 times the 172 people who get paid for working full or part time on farms.
Another 450 V.I. residents list their occupation as "farmer" but don't earn any money, according to Percival Edwards, president of St. Croix Farmers in Action.
Petersen and Edwards came with an impressive array of statistics about what has been, what is, and what they hope might be for the local agriculture sector, particularly on St. Croix.
Of the $2.8 million a year now generated by agriculture, 45 percent comes from milk sales, 23 percent from livestock, 12 percent from vegetables and 7 percent from fruits and nuts.
The territory has 247 farms, Edwards said. Of these, 61 percent occupy nine acres or less, 27 percent cover 10-49 acres, and 8.5 percent are of 50-249 acres. The 3.6 percent that are over 250 acres are mainly used for grazing animals.
The territory has 13,466 acres being farmed, with 12,500 of those acres on St. Croix. And 90 percent of the farmed land is used for grazing.
But agricultural output has dropped sharply in recent years. Edwards said there were declines in production from 1993 to 1998 of 48 percent for vegetables, 30 percent for livestock and 17 percent for fruits and nuts.
Unless something is done, they don't see things getting any better. Edwards said 72 percent of farm operators are over the age of 45. Without training programs in the schools, there will be no one to take their places.
Edwards said producing crops is critical for the Virgin Islands, which now imports 99 percent of its food.
Petersen said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the mainland, it took a week for food shipped to the territory by boat to resume its normal flow. "If the ships stop coming, we're all in the basket together," he said.
Elridge Thomas of the St. Thomas-based We Grow Food Inc. outlined that organization's plans to build a market in Bordeaux. He said he expects it to open by 2006, with a processing plant to be added by 2008. "We are looking for help in the form of grants, loans or labor," he said.
Jacquel Malbranche of the V.I. Institute for Agriculture Development said that her organization has developed a bush tea garden to educate students and others about local traditions. She also sells bush tea. "Enjoy the sun, sand, sea, and tea," she told the Caribbean Food Crops Society members.
Louis Petersen, a University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service program supervisor and moderator of the farmers' forum, said that the Food Crops Society conference provided an opportunity for the 250 participants from the Caribbean and U.S. mainland to network.
For many of the Caribbean locales, "the issues are similar," he said, as communities have seen their farmland rezoned for other uses. And, he said, it's a problem throughout the region that young people are not interested in farming.
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