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Ag Department Asks for Budget to Market Local Produce

July 21, 2006 – Without funding, the Agriculture Department can't effectively market produce grown in the Virgin Islands, according to Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis, speaking at a meeting Friday of the Senate Finance Committee.
Lewis was at the Finance Committee to ask for $3.43 million from the general fund for the department's Fiscal Year 2007 budget. He said that $2.9 million goes for salaries.
The commissioner said he needs a minimum of three more people on his staff to deal solely with marketing Virgin Islands-grown produce.
"We know what we need to do, but we need staff so we can't pursue it the way we'd like to," Lewis said.
He said the department currently has a marketing revolving fund, but that money goes to assist farmers in getting their produce to market. It is not a fund to advertise and market local products.
Sen. Terrence Nelson spoke about his vision for "Virgin Fresh" products, saying, "We could have a local supermarket filled with homegrown produce."
Lewis said that while locally grown produce costs more, the money goes back into the local economy.
He said the territory's farmers can successfully grow certain crops – herbs, spices, melons, pumpkin, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and eggplants – but there are obstacles in developing an economically viable agriculture industry.
The lack of land was chief among the problems, he said.
"You can't be a full-time farmer on two acres."
He said that the Legislature had appropriated money to secure more land, but that it was hard to convince private landholders to sell their land for farming.
And while the department has worked on increasing water availability, more needs to be done in order to assist farmers, Lewis said.
With more money, the department could buy equipment that would enable staff to cut meat butchered at the department's abattoirs into cuts that supermarkets want, but he said the supermarkets don't want to purchase entire carcasses, so they go elsewhere.
Lewis said that plans are under way to form a farmers advisory board, but said the board could generate problems. "Advisory boards act as if they're the last word," he said.
Although Nelson suggested that the Agriculture Department set up a food processing plant to deal with periodic gluts of produce, Lewis said it wasn't as simple as it sounded.
Lewis also spoke about the subsidies provided to the territory's farmers. For example, he said that while they would pay $60 an hour to rent a tractor from a private company, the department charges only $25 an hour.
The department is also looking at the rent it charges for land, but Lewis acknowledged there will be a public outcry when the prices go up. He said the department charges $20 a year per acre for less than five acres and $15 a year per acre for five acres or more.

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