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St. Thomas Farmers Seek Government Funding, More Cooperation

Jan. 31, 2006 — St. Thomas farmers and government officials agree that a lack of funding is at the root of all problems for the territory's agriculture industry.
At a Labor and Agriculture Committee meeting Tuesday, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis said the government has put agriculture on the "back burner for years" and that more money is needed for better farming equipment, heavy machinery, and for the purchase of new farmlands.
He also said he was "not surprised" that the topic of agriculture was not mentioned in Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's State of the Territory address, which was given Monday evening.
Ras Cubu Delano Francis, former president of the Bordeaux farmers collective, We Grow Food Inc., said that the lack of certain resources – like machinery – further prevents farmers from asking the government for assistance in cultivating farmlands. He said a new infrastructure needs to be created for agriculture, including the introduction of better irrigation and piping systems into the community, as well as repairing island roads so that consumers could get to farms in areas such as Bordeaux and Dorothea.
Other representatives of We Grow Food said they are currently working by themselves to create such an infrastructure in Bordeaux by tilling government-owned farmlands, installing drip irrigation and water filter systems, and refurbishing three water dams so that other farmers could access water needed for crops.
Fred Hintz, president of Trans-Caribbean Dairy Corp. (St. Thomas Dairies), said there is also no infrastructure for the dairy industry in the Caribbean due to high taxes and outside competition. Hintz said the dairy has to pay a 4 percent gross receipts tax when importing goods into the territory – a factor which does not apply to offshore competitors.
Elvette L. Elliot, assistant commissioner of Agriculture, said after the meeting that the government should also work on reducing the amount of food being imported into the territory. "Every year, we import about $90 million worth of food into the V.I.," he said. "If we can reduce that amount by $15 million to $20 million, then we could work on providing food to our community, our farmers would be given the incentive to fully cultivate their lands, and we would be able to restore the agricultural industry."
Hintz also said the inability of local vendors – such as the Education Department, which purchases milk from St. Thomas Dairies for the school lunch program – to pay their bills may also force the territory's dairy industry to shut down. "I was listening to the State of the Territory address last night," he said. "I was thrilled when I heard that we ended the year with a surplus – I still don't know why we can't get paid."
Lewis further said that the lack of government land available for farming is a challenge for the department. "While we may never be able to produce enough food to feed everyone in the V.I., we do have to be able to produce enough to feed our residents when there is an emergency," he said. Lewis said there are 250 plots of land – which are owned by the government and leased to private farmers – currently available for cultivating in the Dorothea and Bordeaux areas.
Elliot added that many plots of land leased by the government do not seem to be adequately cultivated, so Agriculture has been planting the crops themselves. Farmers at the meeting, however, did not agree, and said the department does not work with them to cultivate the land, but rather competes with them.
David Berry, a farmer from Dorothea, said he has been trying to lease two plots of land from the government and has submitted a business plan to Agriculture for the cultivation of those lands. Berry said he was denied the leases, and that Agriculture officials instead cultivated the two plots themselves with mango and coconut trees.
"So you see, the government's doing good – real good," Berry said.
Delano Francis also said the relationship between farmers and department officials was "adversarial." He said farming on St. Thomas consisted of terrace farming, which is done primarily by hand, and that farmers needed assistance to repair dams and roads, along with technical assistance for water treatment and soil analysis. Francis added that because farmers were unable to get the needed assistance, food production in the Bordeaux area is sometimes "low."
Many testifying at the meeting also pushed for the development of agricultural classes in local public schools. "There are classes in some of the junior high schools, and the University of the Virgin Islands has worked on providing scholarships for students who are interested in studying agriculture, but the ideas of farming should be instilled in children at a younger age," Louis Petersen, district director of the UVI Cooperative Extension Service, said.
Lewis also mentioned the market for agriculture in the territory needs to be expanded. "There are credit programs out there to help farmers," he said. "But many of them require some kind of collateral, which our farmers don't have because there's a limited market here for agriculture."
However, Lewis added that farmers also needed to help themselves more and not rely on the government for assistance. "We usually go in and prepare the lands ourselves for cultivation," he said. "If each farmer could till the land themselves, then there would be more production."
While Tuesday's meeting lasted until 9 p.m., no real solutions to these problems were found. However, farmers did offer various suggestions, including an annual salary for individual farmers who provide food for the government and the building of an official marketplace on the island, which could serve as a venue for farmers to sell their produce.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Neville James, Norman Jn-Baptiste, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Ronald E. Russell, and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion was absent.
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