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'Serious Money' Needed for Sustainable Agriculture

Feb. 22, 2006 – Many who testified Wednesday at the Labor and Agriculture Committee meeting agreed that unless the Legislature can provide the funding to revamp agriculture, there's no point in discussing the Development of Sustainable Agriculture bill.
"Several of the suggestions can only occur with the expenditure of serious money," Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis said.
The bill calls for a $500,000 appropriation from the territory's General Fund, a figure several people said was inadequate.
Sen. Craig Barshinger said that the necessary money would be forthcoming. "We' re going to give you the money and set some objectives for what you're going to produce in the Virgin Islands," he said.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, who chairs the committee, said that while the Legislature may not be able to come up with the money needed to fund all the bill's provisions, it would make a good start.
"You can't fix a 40-year problem in one bill," he said.
He also vowed the bill would not languish in his committee.
In addition to money, Louis A. Peterson, the district supervisor on St. Thomas for the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service, said the territory needs to set aside land for agriculture.
"Land zoned as agricultural needs to remain as such, and we need to acquire new land," he said.
The territory also needs to set up an educational program to interest the territory's youth in agriculture, Cooperative Extension Director Kwame Garcia said.
The bill would require farmers to follow standard business practices, like proper accounting and filing of income tax forms — even if no taxes are due.
Garcia said that Cooperative Extension offers classes in subjects such as accounting, that farmers need to know in order to run their businesses. However, the school has no degree program in agriculture. A two-year program was discontinued many years ago for lack of interest.
Sen. Neville James, who sponsored the bill, said agriculture has been ignored for too long.
"In the '70s, '80s and '90s, we had a department in Lower Love for the purpose of having a department," he said, inferring that not much happened inside the department's buildings.
Several of the testifiers went through the bill with a fine-tooth comb to point out its problems.
Derick Hodge of We Grow Food Inc. on St. Thomas said people selling produce should not have to spend money on a food handler's card since they aren't preparing it.
He also said that farmers should be allowed to build masonry structures on land leased from the government because wood structures don't hold up well in hurricanes.
Barshinger suggested that companies that buy locally produced agriculture products receive a 100 percent exemption on their gross receipts tax.
Several testifiers also spoke of the need to set up an Agriculture Authority similar to those that oversee other sectors of the territory's economy.
Nelson reminded those involved in agriculture that a four-day agriculture summit begins at 9 a.m. Monday at Rotary West in Frederiksted on St. Croix.
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