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Hard Work and New Techniques Yield 10,000 Peppers at Agriculture Site

Aug. 2, 2007 — Two new houses went on display on St. Thomas this week: One of them will produce almost a ton and half of tomatoes, and the other will provide bushels of green peppers and cucumbers.
Farmers, journalists, Agriculture Commissioner Louis E. Petersen and a handful of produce enthusiasts hiked the hills of Bordeaux Thursday morning under a burning sun. They came to witness the bounty brought about by new technology provided by Fintrac, an international agricultural-development firm, which made St. Thomas its headquarters in 2005.
Fintrac President Clare Starkey and her husband, Senior Vice President Tom Klotzback, were anxious to tell of their project. They have worked in a variety of places training farmers to train other farmers in new technologies — or even old technologies, Klotzback said. Fintrac has worked in Jamaica, Uganda, Ethiopia, Honduras and El Salvador. Before setting up in the Virgin Islands, the company operated out of Washington, D.C.
"We decided to relocate,” Starkey said. “We needed a tropical place that was under the U.S. flag, a place that had easy air access to other countries and a place where we could offer agriculture training in a place where farming would be difficult.
"Anybody can farm on flat land. We wanted to teach farmers how to produce profitably in adverse conditions."
The hills of Bordeaux offer a definite challenge to farming. But it's a challenge local farmers welcomed after they finally got government leases a few years ago.
Fintac wasn't aware of the territory's Economic Development Authority program when they chose St. Thomas, but they immediately applied for the benefits and put them to use, Starkey said.
Along with small farmers, they also work with the extension services teaching farmers and their supporting agencies everything from water-saving techniques to how to make money. The greenhouses are a big part of the money-making chunk.
Because the greenhouse's environment is controlled, the yields are far greater. Temperature, bugs and other diseases can be controlled in the protected environment. They increase farmers' yield exponentially. In fact, the 240 tomato plants that Roland Krigger will grow in his lower Bordeaux greenhouse will yield nearly a ton and a half of tomatoes, far more than he could ever dream of producing in the open air on the 1,400 square feet of land that holds the greenhouse. When he was offered the opportunity to put the greenhouse together, "I jumped at the chance,” Krigger said.
Many consumers on St. Thomas would love to jump right into that tomato yield, but right now Krigger isn't saying how he plans to market the crop.
Richard W.H. Pluke, Fintrac’s senior agronomist and entomologist, has become part of the farming family. He has worked closely with the farmers to train them in new technologies. And it's not just the greenhouses: He also works with the farmers to help manage pests and disease, maximize land use and employ improved growing techniques.
Pluke and Charlie Leonard lead the way for a tour of Leonard's farm. As they walk down the steep hills of the 2.5-acre farm, Leonard and Pluke show off Leonard's rich scotch bonnet pepper crop, which they have worked on since last September.
It has yielded spectacular results: 249 pepper plants that have produced more than 10,000 peppers since Leonard started harvesting them in March. At first Leonard was wary of the new methods.
"Richard told me to plant them closer together," Leonard said, as the assembled visitors viewed the three 30-foot long rows of bright, green, healthy plants. "I didn't know about putting them so close together, and I wondered, but my yield has increased 300 percent." Charles planted three 30-foot-long terraces of the peppers.
"Charlie's energy and his natural desire to learn make him the ideal candidate for Fintrac's technical assistance," Pluke said.
Next it's down past Leonard's chickens and over a dam to Lucien "Jambie" Samuel's greenhouse, back uphill. Steps have been cut into the hillside. "I bet you did this just this morning," someone says to Samuel, who agrees he did, proudly grinning above.
Before the group enters the greenhouse, Klotzback motions toward the front. "There's two doors,” he said. “This is the vestibule. You never want to leave the door open for something to fly in." Another precaution is a foot basin before the first door.
The structure is beautiful, clean and bright. It is filled with rows of little hills, interspersed with footpaths, with a drip irrigation system running between the rows. "We will grow green peppers and cucumbers," Samuel says. "We'll have 220 plants, which will each yield about 12 pounds over 18 weeks."
Behind the structure is a rock wall Samuel and his wife, Benita Martin-Samuel, have constructed to contain water. The land above the greenhouse is also terraced. Building it wasn't easy.
“Jambie and Benita worked hard,” Pluke said. “We got behind schedule, and both of them were sieving the dirt, pushing a wheelbarrow, digging the soil."
So far the company has spent $40,000 on the greenhouse project. It is part of Fintrac’s requirement as beneficiaries of the EDC's tax-benefits program.
The greenhouses took about a year to build and cost between $7,000 and $8,000, including the drip system, the netting and all the materials, not including labor, Pluke said. They are constructed of relatively cheap material, he says, but they can withstand 80-mph winds.
The farmers make an agreement with Fintrac to pass their knowledge on to other farmers. "I'm in a lucky position," Pluke said. "I'm a conduit. This is just the beginning. In a few month's time, we can see the plants flourishing. We want to get into kids' programs, too."
As the group hikes back up to the Bordeaux tennis courts, Samuel steps out, obviously relishing a new role. Stepping behind a table laden with fruit and fresh juices, he said, "Have some papaya, some mango and some corn bread. I make the best corn bread and pumpkin soup on the island."
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